Railway Accident Claims: SC verdict in fever of passenger.

The Supreme Court today passed a detailed judgment clarifying the law with respect to certain subjects which repeatedly arise in railway accident claims before Railway Claims Tribunal.

The judgment was delivered by a Bench of Justices AK Goel and Rohinton Fali Nariman in an appeal preferred against an award of compensation of Rs. 4 lakh under Section 124A of the Railways Act, 1989.

The respondent had filed a claim for compensation for the death of her husband Jatan Gope in an ‘untoward incident’ in 2002. Her case was that the deceased had purchased a second class train ticket and he fell down from the train due to the rush of passengers and died on the spot.

One Kailash Gope who witnessed the deceased purchasing the ticket and boarding the train filed an affidavit stating these facts. He was not cross-examined. The case of the respondent was that the ticket was not recovered from the possession of the deceased as it may have been lost somewhere.

The claim was contested by the Central government (appellant). It was stated that the deceased was not a passenger but was wandering near the railway track. Cousin of the deceased stated that the deceased was suffering from mental disorder and was wandering in that state of mind. However, he was not examined as a witness.

The Tribunal dismissed the claim on the ground that it was not a case of ‘untoward incident’ but a case of ‘run over’ and that the deceased was not a bona fide passenger.

The High Court set aside the order of the Tribunal by relying upon the evidence of Kailash Gope who had filed affidavit to the effect that the deceased had purchased ticket and had boarded the train. The Central government then preferred an appeal to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruled on the following four issues:

Application of Principle of Strict Liability – Concept of Self Inflicted Injury

The Court made it amply clear that the principle of strict liability applies and held that Sections 124 and 124A provide that in the case of an accident or an ‘untoward incident’ compensation is payable whether or not there has been a wrongful act, neglect or fault on the part of the railway administration.

Only exceptions are those provided in the proviso to Section 124A. Where the principle of strict liability applies, proof of negligence is not required, the Court stated.

The Court, therefore, held that death or injury in the course of boarding or de-boarding a train will be an ‘untoward incident’ entitling a victim to the compensation and will not fall under the proviso to Section 124A merely on the plea of the negligence of the victim as a contributing factor.

The burden of proof when Body Found on Railway Premises

Addressing this issue, the Court noted that conflicting decisions have been pointed out on this subject.

The Court, however, held that mere presence of a body in the Railway premises will not be conclusive to hold that the injured or deceased was a bona fide passenger for which claim for compensation could be maintained.

However, the mere absence of ticket with such injured or deceased will not negative the claim that he was a bona fide passenger. The initial burden will be on the claimant which can be discharged by filing an affidavit of the relevant facts and burden will then shift on to the Railways and the issue can be decided on the facts shown or the attending circumstances. This will have to be dealt with from case to case on the basis of facts found, the Court held.

Quantum of compensation

The Court held that compensation will be payable as applicable on the date of the accident with interest as may be considered reasonable from time to time on the same pattern as in accident claim cases. If the amount so calculated is less than the amount prescribed as on the date of the award of the Tribunal, the claimant will be entitled to higher of the two amounts.

The Court in the process also explained the “seeming conflict in Rathi Menon and Kalandi Charan Sahoo” while holding that the 4-Judge Bench judgment in Pratap Narain Singh Deo holds the field on the subject.

“Compensation as applicable on the date of the accident has to be given with reasonable interest and to give effect to the mandate of beneficial legislation, if compensation, as provided on the date of award of the Tribunal, is higher than unrevised amount with interest, the higher of the two amounts has to be given.”

Rate of interest

A rate of interest has to be reasonable at par with accident claim cases.

“….though this Court in Thazhathe Purayil Sarabi (supra) held that rate of interest has to be at the rate of 6% from the date of application till the date of the award and 9% thereafter and 9% rate of interest was awarded from the date of application in Mohamadi (supra), rate of interest has to be reasonable rate at par with accident claim cases.”

The Court held that in the absence of any specific statutory provision, interest can be awarded from the date of accident itself when the liability of the Railways arises upto the date of payment, without any difference in the stages. Legal position in this regard is at par with the cases of accident claims under the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988.

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