06/13/2024

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Shyam Sunder vs. State of Rajasthan (1974)

This article has been written by Priyanka Jain. This article is an analysis of the case of “Shyam Sunder v. State of Rajasthan” to understand the application of “res ipsa loquitur”. It involves state action. This case sheds light on the accountability of the state and sovereign immunity. 

Introduction

The principle function of the maxim “res ipsa loquitur” is to save the plaintiff from the assumption of negligence at the behest of the defendant without the need to provide sufficient evidence to support his claim. This principle is neither a rule of evidence nor a rule of substantive law, but a principle based on common sense. It is based on reason.

The case of Shyam Sunder v. State of Rajasthan (1974) is important because it involves the question of negligence, the principles of “res ipsa loquitur”, ‘vicarious liability’, and the concept of sovereign immunity. This case puts emphasis on the accountability of the government of Rajasthan, or simply the government of any state, for acts that are negligent or wrongful by their employees. The government of any state is liable in the name of the state. This case highlights the dual aspects of state accountability and sovereign immunity. Accountability means the state is responsible for all its actions or omissions, whereas sovereign immunity means that the state is immune from any civil or criminal action. Not all functions of the state, such as ‘famine relief work,’ are protected under the umbrella of sovereign immunity. ‘Famine relief work’ can be conducted by private individuals or private entities.

This case further elaborates on the development of the concept of the state’s responsibility, which concerns the responsibility of the state to ensure the basic rights of its citizens.

Background of Shyam Sunder vs. State of Rajasthan (1974)

This case was an appeal by special leave under Article 136 of the Constitution of India against the judgement and decree of the High Court of Rajasthan. The High Court of Rajasthan had set aside the decree of damages under the Fatal Accidents Act, 1855.

In this case, Navneet Lal, the deceased, left for famine relief work on a state-owned truck. During the journey, the truck caught fire. The driver asked co-passengers to jump off the truck to save themselves from fire. Navneet Lal tried to jump but was unfortunately struck by a big stone lying on the roadside. He died on the spot after jumping off.

This case involves the question of the negligence of the truck driver: why did he use an unroadworthy truck, i.e., a truck that was prone to any unwelcome situation or accident on the road? The petitioner in this case is the widow of the deceased, Mr. Navneet Lal. This case involves the famous legal doctrine ‘res ipsa loquitur’ and the Fatal Accidents Act, 1855. If the cause of the mishap is not known, it doesn’t form a ground for the denial of damages or recovery for the plaintiff. An accident occurred where a truck caught fire, which constitutes evidence of negligence by the state and its truck driver. There were no indications that the truck was accident-prone, except for the conduct of the driver, who was continuously putting water on the radiator to cool it. This evidence is circumstantial in nature. Hence, the doctrine of ‘res ipsa loquitur’ applies.

Facts of Shyam Sunder vs. State of Rajasthan (1974)

A suit was brought against the State of Rajasthan for damages under the Fatal Accidents Act, 1855. There was a resident of Udaipur, Rajasthan, whose name was Mr. Navneet Lal. He was an employee of the State of Rajasthan. He was working as a store keeper in the office of the Public Works Department, Executive Engineer, Bhilwara. A famine relief work was undertaken by the Public Works Department, so he had to go to Banswara regarding this famine relief work. He boarded a truck owned by the department from Bhilwara and reached Chittorgarh the same day in the evening. Three more people, Fateh Singh, another driver, Heera Singh, the cleaner, and a stranger also boarded the truck the next day. They resumed their journey the next day at 11:00 a.m. and reached Pratapgarh the same evening. They stayed there for the night and again resumed their journey at 10:00 a.m. After covering 4 miles from Pratapgarh, the engine of the truck caught fire. When the driver noticed the fire, he asked other passengers, including Mr. Navneet Lal, to jump off the truck. Mr. Navneet Lal, while doing so, got himself struck by a big stone lying at the edge of the road and died on the spot. In this case, the widow of the deceased had brought a suit against the State of Rajasthan for damages under the Fatal Accidents Act, 1855.

Issue raised 

  • Whether there was negligence on the part of the driver during the course of his employment?

Arguments of the parties

Petitioners 

Counsel for the petitioner contended that the driver was negligent in putting an unworthy truck on the road for travel. Since he was an employee of the State of Rajasthan, the State of Rajasthan is liable on account of the negligence of its employee.

The deceased has left his family behind, where he was the sole breadwinner, comprising his parents, wife (plaintiff), and minor children. So, the petitioners claimed damages of Rs 20,000/-.

Defendant  

The counsels for the defendants were unable to render any explanation for this accident. Even they couldn’t provide proof to show that they had taken proper care or precautions before setting the truck on the road. 

Laws discussed 

Fatal Accidents Act, 1855 

The Fatal Accidents Act, 1855, came into force on March 27, 1855. This Act provides compensation to the family of the victim of an actionable wrong. It says in Section 1A that if any one died of a wrongful act, neglect, or default, then the wrongdoer would be liable for such a wrongful act, neglect, or default as if the deceased were still alive. The party (defendant) who would have been liable if the death had not ensued shall be liable for an action or suit for damages even if the plaintiff dies because of such circumstances, which amounts to a heinous crime under the law. In a nutshell, the wrongdoer is liable if the deceased is alive and is available to render his testimony.

If the plaintiff is survived by his wife or husband, children, and parents, they will become both his beneficiary and the legal representatives of the deceased. The court will calculate the loss that ensued because of the death and award damages at its discretion. The court can divide this amount among the beneficiaries in shares as per its decree.

Under Section 2, second paragraph, the executioners, administrators, or representatives of the deceased can bring the suit only once in regard to the same subject matter. The plaintiffs shall discuss the full particulars of all persons on whose behalf this complaint has been moved, along with the nature of the claim for which the action or suit is filed and the damages are claimed.

According to the interpretation of terminology under Section 4, the term ‘person’ includes both political and corporate bodies, and the word ‘parents’ includes father, mother, grand-father, and grand-mother. The word ‘child’ means son, daughter, grand-son, grand-daughter, step son , and step daughter.

Res ipsa loquitur

Res ipsa loquitur means when the thing speaks for itself there is nothing to prove. If there is circumstantial evidence against the defendant and there is no direct evidence against the defendant, then the defendant is presumed to be negligent.

The evolution and origin of this legal doctrine date back to the English case of Byrne v. Boadle (1863). In this case, the plaintiff was walking in a street when, midway, a barrel of flour fell upon him from a window and seriously injured him. The case turned before the Common Law Court of Exchequer on appeal, Chief Baron Jonathon Frederick Pollock opined that a barrel could not roll out of a warehouse without breach of duty to care. Hence, the case of negligence was established. The plaintiff was injured, and the barrel was seen by the bystanders. This was a fit case for circumstantial evidence, and this circumstantial evidence was powerful enough to depict the occurrence of negligence and shift the burden to the defendant. Here, the fallen barrel speaks for itself that it had fallen from a height and injured the plaintiff. 

Judgement in Shyam Sunder vs. State of Rajasthan (1974)

The court concluded that the negligence of the truck driver was evident from his actions while driving the truck. The driver was continuously cooling the radiator, a heat exchange device located in front of the engine, which cools the hot coolant from the engine and emits the heat into the air to maintain the temperature between approximately 85 degrees Celsius and 110 degrees Celsius. Radiators are essential for eliminating heat from the engine, which tends to warm up with regular use. The court supported the argument that the driver knew of the truck’s condition and kept cooling the radiator with water intermittently to keep it running. This continuous cooling indicates that the driver was aware of the truck’s unfit condition but still drove with co-passengers, putting everyone’s life at risk. Therefore, the court found the truck driver to be negligent.

Rationale behind this judgement

The Hon’ble Supreme Court relied on Scott. v. London St. Katherine Docks (1865), where the claimant was a dockworker. He was injured by the falling of heavy bags from the crane of the defendant. The High Court held that if the situation is shown to be under the management and control of the defendant or his servants and the accident is such that it could have been avoided by exercising proper care, then it is reasonable to believe that the accident arose from a lack of care unless the defendant raises an alternative explanation for the incident.

Further, the court relied upon Ballard v. North British Rly. Co. (1923)., where the court opined that the maxim “res ipsa loquitur” is a label for those circumstances in which the plaintiff’s case calls for rebuttal from the defendant. It is to invoke justice so that the plaintiff is not harassed to prove that situation, which is in the exclusive knowledge of the defendant.

The maxim is based on common sense and has to do with justice to the plaintiff when facts regarding causation and the care exercised by the defendant at the beginning are not known to the plaintiff and are supposed to be in the exclusive knowledge of the defendant.

Plaintiff has to prove only the result, neither act nor omission yielding the result. The fact that the driver was in the care of the truck and that, in ordinary circumstances, the truck wouldn’t have caught fire and this incident wouldn’t have taken place is important for consideration. Normally, trucks do not catch fire on the road. So, it cannot be said that the defendants cannot explain or did not know the reason for this mishap. Further, the defendants couldn’t explain this properly. So, this matter was in the exclusive knowledge of the driver only. Hence, the Hon’ble Court opined that the rule of “res ipsa loquitur” was applicable.

Analysis of Shyam Sunder vs. State of Rajasthan (1974) 

Here, the court has tried to secure equilibrium between sovereign immunity and the expectations of its people. It is at the intersection of sovereign immunity and public welfare. This case involves negligence, vicarious liability of the state, and sovereign immunity. Let’s discuss all the doctrines one by one:

Res ipsa Loquitur” 

This concept is under the personal injury law. It is a Latin phrase that means ‘when the thing speaks for itself’. This maxim doesn’t require any proof at the hands of the plaintiff. It is based on circumstantial evidence. Evidence that emanates from the circumstances preceding, attending, and following the crime.

For example, a bucket half filled with water fell out from someone’s balcony and hit any pedestrian, and there are thirty flats in that locality, and all flats were locked because it was a working day, except one. So, there is direct proof that the said bucket fell off from that balcony. Buckets and spilled water are also suggestive of the incident. Hence, we may see that the circumstantial evidence is such powerful evidence.

Following are the elements of the “res ipsa loquitur”:

  • That the defendant was in exclusive control of the situation or the thing that caused the accident.
  • If the defendant had not been negligent, the incident wouldn’t have occurred.
  • There was no contribution on the part of the plaintiff.

When all these elements are established, then the burden of proof shifts to the defendant.

In this case, the truck was under the exclusive control of the Public Works Department of the State of Rajasthan. Mr. Navneet Lal didn’t contribute to negligence through his conduct. And the State of Rajasthan couldn’t show regular maintenance on his part. Hence, this case attracted the doctrine of “res ipsa loquitur”.

In Municipal Corporation of Delhi v. Subhagwanti (1966), a number of people died because of the collapse of a clock tower located at the main market of Chandni Chowk, Delhi, opposite Town Hall. The Clock Tower was under the control of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. The main issue before the Hon’ble Court was whether the Municipal Corporation of Delhi was negligent in taking care of the clock tower and liable to pay damages to the victims of its fall. The Supreme Court observed that the clock tower was eighty years old, and the kind of mortar used to construct it was sufficient for only forty-five years. The chief engineer noticed that the mortar had lost its cementing quality and was reduced to only powder. So the top arches thrust it down, and mortar could not support it. The court held that it was the duty of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi to carry out regular checks and inspections to find any latent defects. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi was under exclusive control of the clock tower; if the Municipal Corporation of Delhi had taken proper precautions and repaired it, it wouldn’t have fallen and caused deaths and serious injuries to people walking down the way. Victims had no role in this collapse. Hence, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi was held liable. 

In Agya Kaur v. Pepsu Road Transport Corporation (1980), a rickshaw going on the correct side was hit by a bus coming on the wrong side of the road. The driver was running the bus at a very high speed, and as a result, the bus hit the pole on the other side of the road. The Hon’ble Supreme Court held that from these facts, the only inference was that the driver was negligent. Thus, Pepsu Road Transport Corporation was held liable.

In Nihal Kaur v. Director, Post Graduate Institute, Chandigarh (1996), a pair of scissors were left in the body of a patient during an operation. This caused his condition to worsen, and he died. Scissors were found after the cremation of the ashes the next day. Compensation of Rs. 1,20,000 was awarded to the representatives of the deceased.

Negligence

Negligence means a lack of care. When a person behaves in a manner that causes harm to others, he is said to be negligent. The following are the essential elements of negligence:

There exists a legal duty to take care

Legal duty, as the name suggests, is a duty that has legal backing. It is a duty that is the result of the law or any obligation recognised by the court. This duty can be statutory or contractual. This is imposed on individuals for the safety and security of others. The person who has a duty to take care has to adhere to certain standards of conduct or behaviour so as to ensure peace and order in society.

Defendant(s) have breached that legal duty

If the defendant(s) has violated or deviated from the standard of conduct that the law or contract has imposed on him, he is said to have violated his legal duty to take care. A breach of duty is simply not performing the duty.

Breach of duty has caused harm to the plaintiff

When the defendant has breached that duty to take care and thereby caused harm to the plaintiff.

Act or omission by the defendant is the cause of the harm to the plaintiff.

This element is supplementary to the previous one. Harm must be caused to the plaintiff. This harm is always not physical or monetary. This harm can be in the nature of a violation of the rights of the plaintiff.

Vicarious liability of the state

The vicarious liability of the state is enshrined under the Constitution. According to Article 300(1) of the Constitution of India, the Government of India may sue in the name of the Union of India at the centre level and in the name of the state at the state level. Likewise, the Government of India may be sued in the name of the Union of India at the centre level and in the name of the state at the state level. 

Sovereign Immunity

Sovereign immunity is a legal concept that protects the state from any legal action. It is based on the legal maxim rex non potest peccare, which means the king can do no wrong. Kings are vested with decision-making and rule-making power, so they should not be disturbed by any legal action of any sort.

Further, the court relied on Kasturi Lal Ralia Ram Jain v. State of Uttar Pradesh (1965), where the Hon’ble Supreme Court held that the liability of the state for the wrongful act of its employee is to be determined on the basis of the “category of employment”. In this case, the state police, under its sovereign function, arrested, searched, and seized the valuables of the appellant and didn’t return the entire valuables after his release. The Supreme Court found no fault of the police in doing so. Sovereign power is based on the British jurisprudence that “the king can do no wrong”. It suggests that any action taken by the king or the ruler is right and not liable to any question, scrutiny, challenge, or dispute; hence, the state is immune from any civil or criminal liability. After this case, the scope of this doctrine was narrowed down but not eradicated.

So, the court observed that the ground of sovereign immunity here is not applicable.

Finally, in the case of Shyam Sunder v. State of Rajasthan, the Hon’ble Supreme Court noted that ordinary trucks would not catch fire while running on the road. The driver was continuously cooling the radiator to keep it going until the destination and also stopping it at regular intervals. The court noticed that the truck was not fit to drive. But the driver put it on the road. So, it is the negligence of the driver. His behaviour showed that he knew the condition of the truck. Further, the defendants could not prove that the truck was fit to drive. Hence, the doctrine of “res ipsa loquitur” applied.

Conclusion

This case delved deeply into the practicality of the doctrine of “res ipsa loquitur” in the context of negligence, especially, where the cause of the accident is difficult to establish and the defendant’s control is clearly visible. The cause of an accident was exclusively within the knowledge of the defendant, meaning the Plaintiff has no need to adduce direct evidence to support his claim. In such scenarios, circumstantial evidence becomes important and decisive.

The defendant had the opportunity to rebut the claim of the plaintiff but failed to provide any explanation or any evidence to counter the allegations. They couldn’t show that they had taken all proper precautions and safety measures or checked the truck before putting it on the road. They did not provide any other reason for the truck catching fire. So, the only evidence that was left before the Hon’ble Court was the frequent watering of the truck radiator to maintain its temperature by the truck driver. Since the driver was continuously cooling the radiator of the truck, it suggests that its condition was not appropriate for a long journey and that the driver was aware of this condition. 

The unfitness or unroadworthiness of the truck was within the exclusive knowledge of the truck driver. This led to the application of the doctrine of “res ipsa loquitur” and shifted the burden. Consequently, the court held the State of Rajasthan vicariously liable for the negligence of its truck driver, as he was a state employee during the trip. Hence, the State of Rajasthan was responsible for the death of Mr. Navneet Lal.

Frequent heating of the radiator and the driver’s attempts to cool it with water were sufficient to prove the driver’s knowledge of the truck’s poor condition. Since the truck belonged to the State of Rajasthan Public Works Department and the truck set off for “famine relief work” the court found this to be a non-sovereign function. Therefore, the State of Rajasthan couldn’t avail itself of sovereign immunity.

It is not necessary to consider whether the function is sovereign, proprietary, or commercial to understand the liability of the state. This verdict was fair enough considering various important factors, diving deep into the logic behind immunity of state, and other reasons. The state can be held liable for the acts of its employees, as sovereign immunities are not absolute.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What does the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur mean?

The doctrine of ‘res ipsa loquitur’ says that when there is circumstantial evidence that shows some wrong has occurred, the plaintiff is not required to give any proof or explanation. Such circumstantial evidence is sufficient to indicate the negligence or guilt of the defendant.

What do you mean by the doctrine of sovereign immunity?

This is also known as the doctrine of crown immunity. It says that the king or queen cannot be held liable for wrongdoing as the king can do no harm. A king is one who has the duty to take care of his subjects, and he cannot even think evil of any of his subjects. 

What is famine relief work?

Famine relief work is a planned effort organised by any organisation or government of the concerned geography to stop the situation of starvation, malnourishment, or any consequential outcomes. A famine is a result of the negligent acts of humans towards their wellness goals. It is not a result of natural calamities or disasters.

References

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