Shyam Sundar and others V. The State of Rajasthan

INTRODUCTION

This article focuses on the brief analysis of the case Shyam Sunder and Others v. The State Of Rajasthan. 

Equivalent Citation

  • 1974 AIR 890
  • 1974 SCR (3) 549
  • 1974 SCC (1) 690

Bench

  • K. K. Mathew (J.)
  • Alagiriswami (J.)

Author of the Judgement

  • K. K. Mathew (J.)

Decided on

  • 12 March, 1974

Relevant Act / Maxim / Article

  • Fatal Accident Act, 1855
  • Maxim – res ipsa loquitur (the thing speaks for itself) – the principle that the mere occurrence of some types of accident is sufficient to imply negligence.
  • Article – 300 of the Constitution of India – Tortious liability of state

Brief Facts

Navneetlal, a resident of Udaipur working as a Store Keeper in the Public Works Department, of the State of Rajasthan, boarded on a truck at Bhilwara along with six others and proceeded to Banswara for famine relief works undertaken by the department. Throughout the journey, the radiator of the truck was getting heated frequently and the driver was pouring water into it every 6 or 7 miles of the journey. The truck took nine hours to travel the distance of seventy miles. After having traveled four miles from Pratapgarh, the engine of the truck caught fire. As soon as the driver saw the fire, he cautioned the occupants to jump out of the truck. Consequently, Navneetlal and the other persons jumped off the truck. While doing so, Navneetlal struck against a stone lying by the side of the road and died instantaneously.

Parvati Devi, widow of Navneetlal brought a suit against the State of Rajasthan for damages under the provisions of the Act. The plaintiff alleged that it was on account of the negligence of the driver that the truck which was not road worthy was put on the road and that it caught fire which led to the death of her husband and that the State was liable for the negligence of its employees in the course of his employment. The plaintiff also alleged that the deceased had left behind him his widow namely, the plaintiff, two minor sons, one minor daughter and his parents. The plaintiff claimed damages to the tune of Rs.20,000/- and prayed for a decree for that amount. The state contended that there was no negligence on the part of the driver as the truck was quite in order when it started and if it developed some mechanical trouble suddenly causing fire, the driver cannot be held liable.

Procedural History

  • The case was taken by the Trial Court which relied on the maxim res ipsa loquitur and found that the driver was negligent in putting the truck on the road as the truck was not road-worthy and since the driver was negligent, it held that the State was vicariously liable for his act. The court assessed the damages at Rs.14,760/- and granted a decree for the amount to the plaintiff. 
  • The State then appealed to the High Court against the decision of Trial Court. Where it held that there was no evidence on record by the plaintiff to prove negligence on part of the driver, the mere fact that the truck caught fire does not prove that the driver was negligent and that the principle of res ipsa loquitur had no application to the facts of the case. 
  • It was also argued on behalf of the defendant that the state was engaged in a function appertaining to its character as sovereign and the driver was acting in the course of his employment in connection with the famine relief work and therefore, even if the driver was negligent, the state would not be liable for damages.

Issues Before the Court

  • Whether the fact that the truck caught fire is evidence of negligence on the part of the driver in the course of his employment?
  • Whether the famine relief work undertaken by the Public Work Department of State of Rajasthan can be categorized as a sovereign function?

Ratio of the Case

  • The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is resorted to when an accident is shown to have occurred and the cause of the accident is primarily within the knowledge of the defendant. The mere fact that the cause of the accident is unknown to the plaintiff does not prevent him from recovering the damages. Sometimes, the fact that the accident occurred, constitutes evidence of negligence and under such circumstances the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur becomes applicable.
  • The maxim does not embody any rule of substantive law nor the rule of evidence. The maxim is only a convenient label to apply to a set of circumstances in which the plaintiff merely proves a result, not any particular act or omission producing the result. If the result in the circumstances in which he proves, makes it more probable than not that it was caused by the negligence of the defendant, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is said to be applicable, and the plaintiff will be entitled to succeed unless the defendant by evidence shows that either he took all reasonable precautions to avoid the injury or that the particular cause of injury was not associated with negligence on his part.
  • The principal function of the maxim is to prevent injustice which would result if a plaintiff were invariably compelled to prove the cause of the accident and the defendant responsible for it, even when the facts bearing on the matter are at the outset unknown to him and often within the knowledge of the defendant.
  • Thus the fact that the defendant is as much at a loss to explain the accident or himself died in it, does not preclude an adverse inference against him if the odds otherwise point to his negligence. The mere happening of the accident may be more consistent with the negligence on the part of the defendant than with other causes. The maxim is based on common sense and its purpose is to do justice when the facts bearing on the causation and on the care exercised by defendant are at the outset unknown to the plaintiff and are or ought to be within the knowledge of the defendant.

Decision

  • The Supreme Court held that the District Judge correctly held the driver liable for negligence in putting a vehicle, not road-worthy on the road which consequently caught fire. From the evidence it was clear that the radiator was getting heated frequently and that the driver was pouring water in the radiator after every 6 or 7 miles of the journey. And the fact that normally a motor vehicle would not catch fire if its mechanism is in order indicates that there was some defect in it. The vehicle was under management of the driver and it was found on the basis of the evidence of the witnesses that he knew about this defective condition of the truck when he started from Bhilwara. There was no evidence as to how the truck caught fire and there was no explanation by the defendant about it. It was a matter within the exclusive knowledge of the defendant. It was not possible for the plaintiff to give any evidence as to the cause of the accident. Hence, the Supreme Court concluded that the maxim res ipsa loquitur was applicable.
  • With reference to sovereign immunity the Supreme Court held that the famine relief work could not be considered as the sovereign function of the State as it has been traditionally understood. It is a work which can be and is being undertaken by private individuals. There is nothing peculiar about it, that the State alone can exclusively undertake this work. 
  • On the aforementioned grounds the Supreme Court set aside the decree of the High Court, restored the judgment passed by the District Judge and allow the appeal with costs.

This case analysis has been written by SAHEBA SHAMS, 1st year student pursuing BA-LL.B from Osmania University, Hyderabad. 

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