This case analysis is written by Gaurav Lall pursuing BBA LL.B. (Hons.) at United World School of Law.
Collapse of Clock Tower abutting highway-Clock Tower owned by Municipal Corporation, where Municipal Corporation is responsible for damages for loss of life caused whether by patent or latent defects. Applicability of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.
Supreme Court of India
24th February 1966
Municipal Corporation of Delhi v. Subhagwanti, AIR 1966 SC 1750
Brief Facts and Procedural History
Three suits for damages were filed by the respondents as heirs of three persons who died as a result of the collapse of the Clock Tower in Chandni Chowk, Delhi, belonging to the appellant-Corporation, formerly the Municipal Committee of Delhi. The building was 80 years old and the life of the structure of the top storey, having regard to the type of mortar used, could be only 40 to 45 years and the middle storey could be saved for another 10 years. The collapse of the Clock Tower was due to the thrust of the arches on the top portion. If an expert had examined this building specifically for the purpose he might have found out that it was likely to fall. When the building was inspected after the collapse it was found that it had deteriorated to such an extent that it was reduced to powder without any cementing properties.
Issues Before the Court
- Whether the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur will apply?
- Whether the appellant, as an owner of the Clock Tower abutting on the highway, is bound to maintain it in a proper state of repairs so as not to cause any injury to any member of the public using the highway and whether the appellant is liable whether the defect is patent or latent?
- Whether the appellant was negligent in looking after and maintaining the Clock Tower and was liable to pay damages for the death of the persons resulting from its fall?
Decision of the Court
It is true that the conventional rule is that it is for the plaintiff to prove negligence and not for the defendant to disprove it. However, there is an exception to this rule which applies where the circumstances surrounding the thing which causes the damage are at the material time completely under the control or management of the defendant or his servant and the happening does not occur in the ordinary course of action without negligence on the defendant’s part. The principle has been clearly expressed in Halsbury’s Laws of England, 2nd Edn., Vol. 23, at p. 671 as follows: “An exception to the general rule that the burden of proof of the alleged negligence is within the initial instance on the plaintiff which occurs wherever the facts already established are such that the proper and natural thesis immediately arising from them is that the injury, complained was caused by the defendant’s negligence, or where the event charged as negligence tells its own story’ of negligence on the part of the defendant, the story so told being clear and not open to more than one interpretation. To these form of cases, the maxim res ipsa loquitur applies. Where the rule applies, a presumption of fault is raised against the defendant, which, if he is to succeed in his defence, must be overcome by contrary evidence, the burden on the defendant being to show how the act complained of could reasonably happen without negligence on his part.”
The legal position is that there is a special obligation on the owner of adjacent premises for the safety of the structures which he keeps besides the highway. If these structures fall into decrepitude so as to be of potential danger to the passers-by or to be a nuisance, the owner is liable to anyone using the highway who is injured by reason of the disrepair. In such a case it is no defence for the owner to prove that he neither knew nor ought to have known of the danger. In other words, the owner is legally responsible irrespective of whether the damage is caused by a patent or a latent defect. In Wringe v. Cohen [1940 1 K.B. 229] the plaintiff was the owner of a lock-up shop in Proctor Place, Sheffield, and the defendant Cohen was the owner of the adjoining house. The defendant had let his premises to a tenant who had occupied them for about two years. It appears that the corner end of the defendant’s house collapsed due to a storm, and fell through the roof of the plaintiff’s shop. There was evidence that the wall at the corner end of the defendant’s house had, need to want of repair, become a nuisance, i.e., a danger to passers-by and adjacent owners. It was held by the Court of Appeals that the defendant was liable for negligence and that if owing to want of repairs premises on a highway become dangerous and, therefore, a nuisance and a passer-by or an adjoining owner suffers damage by the collapse the occupier or the owner if he has undertaken the duty of repair, is answerable whether he knew or ought to have known of the danger.
In our opinion, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies in the circumstances of the present case. It is not the case of the appellant that there was any earthquake or storm or any other natural event which was unforeseen and which could have been the cause of the fall of the Clock Tower. In these circumstances, the mere fact that there was fall of the Clock Tower tells its own story in raising an inference of negligence so as to establish a prima facie case against the appellant.
In view of the fact that the building had passed its normal age at which the mortar could be expected to deteriorate it was the duty of the appellant to carry out careful and periodical inspection for the purpose of determining whether, in fact, deterioration had taken placed whether any precautions were necessary to strengthen the building.
Applying the principle to the present case it is manifest that the appellant is guilty of negligence because of the potential danger of the Clock Tower maintained by it having not been subjected to a careful and systematic inspection which it was the duty of the appellant to carry out.
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