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Motor accidents are an extremely common occurrence in India. They often happen on account of undulations or problems with road work and unsatisfactory construction. The question which comes up over and over, is “who is to be held responsible for these accidents?”. If there was no second party involved, and the cause of the accident was potholes on the road or the road having been washed away in the monsoon; what can the injured or aggrieved party do, except do blame his own stars?
But in fact, there is someone to blame!
The Supreme Court in the case of The Director General (Road Development) National Highways Authority of India Vs. Aam Aadmi Lokmanch addressed the case of an accident caused on account of poor construction of highway roads. The Apex Court, after great deliberation held that the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), who is responsible for making highways in India, and is also responsible for maintaining them, owes a duty to the people travelling over them. The Court held the NHAI accountable for their failure in their duty, and thus ordered them to pay a certain sum as compensation to the aggrieved.
Facts of the issue
The facts that led up to this decision were that on 6th June, 2013, Vishakha and Sanskruti, were travelling on National Highway-04, when as a result of over-mining, a small hill by the side of the highway was destroyed. The resulting debris and a part of the hill collapsed and slid down to the road, which took the lives of both Mother and Daughter.
After this incident the Pune Bench of the National Green Tribunal, on an application by Aam Aadmi Lokmanch found that the accident was the result of illegal mining and hill destruction near the highway by a certain contractor by the name Rathod. The NGT held the NHAI and Rathod are jointly liable to pay a compensation of 15 lakhs to the next of kin of the deceased. NHAI appealed to the Supreme Court, claiming that it did not have any responsibility for the event, but their plea was rejected by the Apex Court, which upheld the NGT’s order. In doing this the Supreme Court referred to a series of case laws holding that a statutory/public corporation can be held liable for a tortious liability. (Municipal Corporation of Delhi v. Sushila Devi)
Legal Provisions Involved
Sections 4 and 5 of the National Highways Act, 1956 read with Section 16 of The National Highways Authority of India Act, 1988, establish the responsibility of the NHAI to maintain the national highways. The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 was also involved vis-a-vis the issue pertaining to the mining area being in excess of 5 hectares, which required an environment clearance, which was not duly obtained.
Had the contractor responsible, obtained the requisite Environmental Clearance, he would have realised the shortcomings in the excavation activity and this would also have had the effect of alerting the authorities.
This decision of the Supreme Court was long standing and is very welcome in the current scenario where approximately 1.35 million people die in road accidents each year. In accidents with involvement of another party, the next of kin of deceased or the aggrieved themselves, have someone to blame, and claim compensation from. However, even this much solace is often not available in road accidents occurring on account of deficient construction. These incidents are often attributable to parties who are not physically present at the scene of the event, but who could have prevented its occurrence, in one way or another, by acts or omissions. In this case, the Supreme Court has taken the protection to victims of road accidents up a notch, by recognising the culpability of the NHAI and the Contractor.
The NHAI has been long evading its responsibility qua road accident victims. However, the Apex Court has put an end to this saga, by pointing out in express terms, the statutory duty of care, that the NHAI owes, to anyone who travels using the National Highways. In the present case, the NHAI allowed the said mining activity, and was aware of all its facts and figures, but did nothing to prevent it’s ill-effects. As a result of which, it owes a level of responsibility to the next of kin of Vishakha and Sanskruti. Since the Contractor was responsible for conducting the mining activity which resulted in the accident, without getting proper permission, he was in contravention of the law and thus, he also owed a level of responsibility.
The Supreme Court also held the NGT was well within its jurisdiction in passing such a direction, thereby once again highlighting the importance of the NGT and its role in such activities.
The Apex Court has truly given justice to the next of kin of the deceased persons in this case and has once again shown, by this pathbreaking judgement, that corporate bodies are not outside the ambit of tortious claims. This case holds a candle to our justice system, truly reflecting what justice looks like, and that even in these uncertain times the Courts still look after its citizens.
Author: Siddhant Singh from Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur.
Editor: Astha Garg, Junior Editor, Lexlife India