SC fixes vicarious liability for negligence on organisers of event leading to horrific fire tragedy in 2006

ON Tuesday, the Supreme Court bench of Justices Hemant Gupta and V. Ramasubramaniam in Sanjay Gupta & Ors vs. State of Uttar Pradesh & Ors., allowed compensation to the victims of the fire tragedy that occurred on April 10, 2006, at Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, during an exhibition organised by a private party. The unfortunate incident claimed the lives of 65 persons and left over 161 more with burn injuries. The state of Uttar Pradesh had then appointed Justice O.P. Garg (Retired) to head a commission of inquiry into the incident.

The court awarded compensation by relying on its previous decision in Pushpabai Purshottam Udeshi vs. Ranjit Ginning & Pressing Co. Pvt. Ltd. & Anr. (1977), which held that where “the plaintiff can prove the accident but cannot prove how it happened to establish negligence on the part of the defendant, such hardship is sought to be avoided by applying the principle of res ipsa loquitur.”

The report of the Justice Garg Commission of Inquiry, submitted in 2007, was found to be unsustainable by the Supreme court in 2014 because the organisers were not afforded an opportunity of cross-examination. The court then appointed Justice S.B. Sinha as a one-man Commission to probe the incident. It found that the organisers of the tragic event deliberately and intentionally suppressed material facts before the concerned authorities while applying for permission.

The Sinha Commission observed:

The Organizers had a complete control not only on the erection of structures, but also the materials used therefor, and even if the Contractor supplied inflammable materials or substandard wires and cables, and/or committed serious irregularities in the matter of electrical management, the Organizers were liable inasmuch as they have failed and/or neglected to comply with the mandatory provisions of the statutory provisions.

Further, the Commission noted: “The Police Authorities furthermore failed to estimate the number of visitors who were expected to visit the Exhibition. As they proceeded on the basis that having regard to the number of expected visitors crowd management may not be a problem”.

The cause of the fire, according to the Commission, was either short circuit or use of substandard wires and cables or overheating. The Commission had therefore ruled out sabotage or mischief or ‘Vis Major’ (that is, an Act of God).

In the present case, the organisers had failed to arrange an inspection by the nominated authority under the Uttar Pradesh Fire Prevention and Fire Safety Act, 2005 to enter and inspect the premises where the exhibition was supposed to take place, for ascertaining the adequacy or contravention of fire prevention and fire safety measures. It was mandatory for the nominated authority to give a report to the District Magistrate on the same, which the respondents failed to comply with. They had also failed to take permission from the civil administration under Section 133 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, to ensure that the structure (exhibition) put by the organisers was safe so as to not endanger the life of the visitors.

However, the writ petition was challenged by the respondent counsel on the ground that the same was not maintainable against private persons and that independent contractors were appointed. To counter this, reliance was placed by the petitioners on the Delhi High Court’s judgment in Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy vs. Union of India & Ors. (2003), in which it was held, “[I]t cannot be said that the cinema owners/employees (past/present) cannot be held to be under an obligation to provide and maintain all standards of safety and/or that they are not liable to compensate for loss of fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 if harm has arisen by virtue of their not guarding against such hazard. Prima facie it appears that under the doctrine of strict liability on Public Law (as set out above) the liability would be then even if there is no negligence on their part.”

When this judgment was challenged before the Supreme Court, the latter had observed in its decision in 2011: “Right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India is the most sacred right preserved and protected under the Constitution, violation of which is always actionable and there is no necessity of statutory provision as such for preserving that right.”

Further, in D.K. Basu vs. State of West Bengal (1996), it was held that the “[a] ward of compensation for established infringement of the indefeasible rights guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution is a remedy available in public law since the purpose of public law is not only to civilise public power but also to assure the citizens that they live under a legal system wherein their rights and interests shall be protected and preserved.

Thus, the Supreme Court upheld the liability of the organisers and the state as apportioned to 60 per cent and 40 per cent respectively by the Court Commissioner in this case. The bench rejected the contention that contractors, and not the organisers, were liable, and fixed vicarious liability on the latter.

The bench requested the Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court to entrust the work of determination of compensation to a Judicial Officer of the rank of District Judge/Additional District Judge in Meerut within two weeks of the pronouncement of the order, on a day-to-day basis. The nominated officer was asked to calculate the amount of compensation and forward the report to the Supreme Court for consideration, after adjusting already disbursed compensation to the victims.

Click here to view the Supreme Court’s judgment. 

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