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Tort is a civil wrong, meaning it is a wrong committed against a person. Tort comes from the Latin word “tortum,” which means “crooked” or “twisted.” It is equivalent to the English term ‘wrong’ in this sense. There are two kinds of law: civil and criminal. Tort and contract law are two subsets of civil law. It’s essentially a violation of a legal obligation. It violates the legal rights of others. A tort happens when someone intentionally or carelessly harms another person.

Civilization and law coexist. It is not possible for one to exist without the other. If one thrives, the other develops as well, and if one declines, the other suffers. As a result, tort law was created to deal with everyday offenses.

The Tort Law can be traced back to the Roman precept alterium non-laedere. The maxim means “not to harm another,” implying that no one should be harmed by their actions or words. This maxim is similar to the maxims of honesty vivere, which means “to live honorably,” and suum clique tribuere, which means “to render to every man that which belongs to him,” or “to bring fairness to every person.” The development of tort law can be traced back to these three maxims.

What is Tort according to jurists?

Salmond defined tort as, “It is a civil wrong for which the remedy is a common-law action for unliquidated damages and which is not solely a violation of contract, trust, or other essentially equitable obligation.”

Winfield mentions, “Tortious liability comes from the breach of a primary legal obligation: this duty is owed to all individuals, and its failure is redressable by an action for unliquidated damages,” Winfield says.

The definitions of Winfield and Salmond are incompatible. The practical point of view is represented by Salmond’s definition, but the theoretician point of view is represented by Winfield’s definition. Salmond’s point of view is preferred by lawyers, but Winfield’s is preferred by students. Furthermore, Salmond’s perspective is narrower, whereas Windfield’s perspective is larger.

Application of English Law of Torts in India

In India, tort law is based on English tort law.
The English Law of Torts has a significant influence on Indian tort law, despite the fact that the act has been changed to reflect Indian legislation. When the British ruled India, they established their own set of rules and procedures for administering justice. Jimha, which means crooked in Sanskrit, was believed to be akin to “tortious of fraudulent conduct” in ancient Hindu law. At the time, the scope of British tort was limited.

Because the Indians were utterly uninformed of the English laws, they were found to be unjust and inequitable. It was difficult to administer Indians in the early days of British law since there was an English Judge who had to deal with a case in a foreign language. As a result, they resolved to draught an Indian Tort Law based on English concepts in order to avoid chaos. They chose to set up courts in India in the 18th century after studying the Indian laws at the time and obtaining the necessary approval.

Mayors Courts in the Presidency Towns of Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay were the first courts established by the British in India. These courts were subject to English statutes and Acts, which were then implemented in England.
The courts established that “justice, equity, and good conscience” were the guiding principles at the time. The Privy Council understood the phrase “justice, equity, and good conscience” to include norms of English law that are suitable to Indian society and circumstances. All of this meant that the High Courts of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras adhered to the Common Law of Torts, while the other courts applied the principles of justice, equity, and good conscience.
Also, when looking at Indian decisions, Justice Bhagwati stated in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India,

“In a highly industrialized economy, we need to develop new ideas and lay down new rules that will effectively deal with new challenges that occur.” We cannot allow our judicial thought to be shaped by the law as it currently exists in England, or for that matter, in any other country. We are absolutely open to receiving illumination from any source, but we must first establish our own jurisprudence.” We can infer from the words that Justice Bhagwati recognized the importance of having one’s own law and how it contributes to the nation’s growth.”

The main purpose of Law of Torts in India

The primary goal of tort law is to provide compensation to people who have been injured. Though, in current times, the goal is to distribute losses among those who are connected in some way.

Furthermore, some authors argue that Tort Law is more concerned with punishing than compensating. For the purpose of Torts, everyone has their own point of view. The violation of a general duty is a common ingredient in both crimes and torts. Murder, robbery, burglary, and other major crimes are all under governmental supervision. The state has power over all common wrongs in Tort Law as well. Individual harm is thought to be equivalent to societal harm.
As a result, the primary goal of tort law is to punish wrongdoers and foster social peace.

Reasons for the slow development of Law of Torts in India

In comparison to other countries, India’s tort law is not well developed. Even the Indian Tort Law does not have a codified version. There are several reasons for India’s sluggish development of tort law, some of which are stated below:

  1. The law is ambiguous. People face a great deal of uncertainty because the legislation is not codified and is still in its early phases of development. This is why only a small number of cases are filed under Indian Tort Law. Furthermore, there are few precedents, which adds to the vagueness of Tort law. The existing precedents are from English Tort law and cannot be applied to Indian law.
  2. There is a general lack of political awareness among the general public. Because most people are unaware of their rights, tort law is rarely employed in the country. This issue arises as a result of India’s widespread illiteracy, which also causes people to avoid going to court to exercise their rights. People who carry out their responsibilities are given more weight than those who demand their rights.
  3. Why do people disregard their legal rights? This is due to a lack of awareness of their rights and the country’s high illiteracy rate. Because of their illiteracy, people are unaware of their rights and are hesitant to seek redress through the courts.
  4. Poverty continues to be a factor in India’s delayed development of tort law. The majority of India’s population is economically poor, and as a result, they are unable to afford the hefty costs of litigation. This is still a major reason to avoid bringing a Tort case.
  5. The court system is also highly expensive. The cost of going to court and hiring a lawyer is extremely significant. As a result, rather than approaching the court, the poor man chooses to suffer the torture. The cases are likewise handled in a molasses-like manner. On the other hand, in England, the administration of justice is so cheap and quick that these types of cases are resolved in under a year. All of these issues contribute to the tort law’s delayed evolution.

The number of pending cases in India as of October 13, 2018, is depicted in the graph below.

The graph was created using data from the National Judicial Data Grid. Due to the sluggish evolution of Indian legislation, a considerable number of cases are still waiting.

Have Torts been Ignored in India?

The next stage will be to see if the Indian court system has disregarded tort law. Simply said, tort law has not been forgotten. The M.C. Mehta case, which established the absolute liability rule, the Supreme Court’s direction on Multinational Corporation Liability, recognition of Governmental tort by government employees, principles on the legality of the state, the evolution of the tort of sexual harassment, a grant of interim compensation to a rape victim, and award of damages for violations of human rights under writ jurisdiction are all examples of this.

Despite the fact that most areas of law, such as crimes, contracts, property, trusts, and so on, have been systematically organized, India’s lack of a torts code is notable. The work of Indian attorneys and judges has contributed significantly to the evolution of tort law. Tort reform has been advocated for about a century and a half, with the earliest support coming from Sir F Pollock in 1886, who drafted the ‘Indian Civil Wrongs Bill.’ The bill, however, was not brought up for consideration in the legislature.

The value of code cannot be denied, but it is vital to remember that tort law is still in its infancy, and codifying it would not only be difficult but may also stifle its progress. However, the lack of a code prevents torts from becoming the dominant mode of litigation. The evolution of tort law in India pales in comparison to that of other progressive countries, where tort law is substantially more mature.

As previously stated, codification of tort law at this time would be premature. A more prudent approach would be, to begin with, enactments in areas where case law is lacking. The subject of the government’s liability when it comes to torts committed by its workers is one of the first suggestions made by the Law Commission in this regard.

In the report of the commission led by MN Venkatachaliah CJ, the National Commission for Review of the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC) has also recommended a statute that makes the state liable for the torts of its employees (2002). The small volume of tort litigation in Indian courts, on the other hand, contributes considerably to why an Indian code on this branch of law may be premature. Currently, only a small percentage of tort lawsuits are ever brought to court. However, this is a catch-22 since until a code for tort law is developed, there will be few tort cases brought in courts because people have no means of knowing what they are getting into.

Concerns with Tortious Litigation in India

Despite the fact that India is regarded as a litigious country, the number of lawsuits filed is quite modest. This is because of the limits and roadblocks that have been placed in place, including prohibitive fees, lengthy delays, and inadequate harm grants. In recent years, there has been a notable increase in the number of cases completed, particularly in cases involving the administration. This is typically linked to India’s financial development and, as a result, increased awareness of legal rights.

Common law jurisprudence shaped the Indian legal system and was introduced to the Indian people in an uncommon way. Although the English tort law served as a model for its Indian counterpart, its application is still ambiguous and limited. Several decisions and cases involving defamation and contributions between joint tortfeasors plainly illustrate that India cannot and does not adhere to English common law.

The English tort law applied differentially to Presidency towns and the mofussil throughout the colonial era. Indian citizens are exempt from the champerty and maintenance statutes. In fact, only those provisions of English tort law that suit the local conditions in India have been upheld and are valid in India. Given this situation, determining whether a given English statute also applies in India is difficult.

It was also unclear whether a specific statute remained in force in India after being abolished or changed under English law. For such a question, there is no final answer. As a result, unless a judge decided otherwise, it was difficult to know whether aspects of English law were applicable in India. Tort law remained uncodified even after the Constitution took effect. Article 372 of the Indian Constitution states that legislation in effect immediately prior to the adoption of the Constitution remains in effect. Any rulings issued by English courts, on the other hand, are no longer required to be upheld by Indian courts.

These decisions may only have persuasive power at most. As a result, the state of tort law remains unchanged. Because English tort law cannot be applied generally to the Indian setting, Indian tort law as a whole remains ambiguous. Furthermore, there is still a discrepancy in the application of laws in Presidency towns against the mofussil.
Citizens do not have a clear knowledge of their rights and responsibilities before going to court. Lawyers are likewise constrained in how much assistance they can provide in this circumstance because many areas of the law are still uncertain. The judge presiding over the case also has a difficult assignment ahead of him.

It’s simple to understand why victims often accept the wrongdoings they’ve been subjected to without pursuing legal redress. Is there always a way to stand up for one’s rights? The explanation, according to Professor Northrop, could be found in the cultural contrasts between eastern and western nations. Compromise is encouraged in Eastern societies. Furthermore, Asian tribes have a reluctance to use Western, right-wing legislation to resolve their conflicts. As a result, when it comes to torts, there is very little litigation.

People have been skeptical of such sweeping generalizations for a long time, while also urging that we reconsider the need for tort law litigation in India and its repercussions. Such recommendations strongly propose that empirical research be conducted to evaluate the validity of such reasons, which are mostly based on sociological, civilizational, and cultural elements.

If there is one thing that is certain in today’s culture, it is that quality justice is not provided; rather, it can only be purchased at a hefty cost. This is not to imply that the court is corrupt; rather, it demonstrates how a common man cannot even imagine receiving proper recompense for the damages to which he is entitled. This is true because the adversary can always use his money or influence to get around our country’s complicated judicial structure.

The commoner, on the other hand, will face a chain reaction of procedural issues as soon as he approaches the judicial system with his grievance, which will absorb all of his money, willpower, and time. The aggrieved will be obliged to pay hefty lawyer’s fees, court fees, and other incidental charges just to file his claim in court. To the uninitiated, it may not seem true, yet his legal expenses in seeking to recover his losses might sometimes much outweigh the original amount of his claim.

Unfortunately for him, if he loses at the conclusion of the trial, he may be forced to pay even more money to the court, first as costs, and then to file an appeal in a higher court. We haven’t even discussed the length of time it takes to resolve a civil case in India. According to studies, courts in tortious litigation cases take an average of nearly 6 years to reach a judgment. So far, the shortest time it has taken for a tort case to be resolved in 5 years, while the longest time it has taken is 13 years. Even severely harmed people are discouraged from resorting to civil action due to the excessive costs and lengthy decision-making process involved in tort claims.

We have highlighted a few cases that have further discouraged those who have been wronged in order to show the court attitude in such scenarios where compensations must be paid. According to precedent, in a case where the plaintiff’s claim was for Rs. 10,000/-, he was only awarded Rs. 1/- in compensation. In another case, two civil actions were valued at Rs. 500/- apiece, but the court only granted the aggrieved parties Rs. 60/- and Rs. 50/-, respectively.

The Hon’ble Nagpur Bench of the erstwhile Bombay High Court determined that in a matter where the claim was for Rs. 11,300/-, the aggrieved would be satisfied with an award of only Rs. 315/-. In a case before the Hon’ble Madras High Court, a plaintiff filed a claim for Rs. 10,000/- but was only given Rs. 650/- in compensation. It should be noted that these examples are somewhat ancient, yet they have been mentioned to emphasize the Indian judiciary’s inclination to ignore tort proceedings and award grossly disproportionate amounts when contrasted to the plaintiff’s claims.

Major Breakthroughs in Tort Law in India

UPHAR CINEMA CASE –The Gateway to Tort Law in India

The Uphaar Cinema, located in a wealthy suburb in the center of the country, New Delhi, caught fire on June 13, 1997, due to a malfunctioning generator mounted by the Electricity Board in the theatre’s basement. The exits from the balcony were clogged due to the installation of unlicensed seats years ago. As a result, the occupants inside the theatre were unable to flee, and fifty-nine people perished and another hundred were injured.

In November 1997, all of the injured’s outraged family members established an association and filed a complaint in the High Court of New Delhi, represented by a volunteer lawyer. The group sought Rs. 22.1 crore in compensation and Rs. 100 crore in punitive damages, which would be used to establish a trauma center, making it the biggest demand in an Indian tort case to date.

Following that, in 2003, the court ordered Rs. 21 crores in compensation for the families of the deceased people, as well as Rs. 1.04 crore for the 104 injured theatre-goers. In addition, a sum of Rs. 2.5 crore has been approved for the establishment of a trauma center in this regard.

The multimillionaire theatre owners were then charged with criminal offenses, and the Sessions Court found them guilty and sentenced them to two years in prison. However, the aggrieved association, dissatisfied with the penalty, went to the Supreme Court in 2007, which maintained the convictions and enhanced the sentence.

In India, the Uphaar Cinema Case was a watershed moment for tort relief in catastrophes. It had well-organized and affluent appellants represented by a dedicated lawyer who did not charge for his services, as well as a case with no evidentiary issues.

However, fourteen years after the fire, on October 13, 2011, the Supreme Court reduced the damages awarded to the deceased victims to a fraction of their original amount, from 2.5 crores to 25 lakhs, a 90% reduction, and all government agencies charged with the fire were exonerated except the Delhi Electricity Board. Even when it was a win-win case totally in favor of the appellants who had been tortured by the incompetent authorities, the future of mass tort in India appeared dismal once again.

In 2014, the Supreme Court heard a new appeal in the criminal case of Uphaar. It upheld the Ansals’ convictions, i.e. the cinema owners who had previously been found guilty, but it couldn’t agree on the amount of compensation to be paid to the victims. Justice T.S. Thakur favored restoring the Ansals’ original punishment, but Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra favored awarding Rs. 100 crore as compensation for the establishment of a Trauma Center in the Uphaar Victims’ memory. The judge’s readiness to award such a large sum for a tort law case in India, far bigger in magnitude than had previously been contemplated, demonstrated the growth of mass torts in India.


In 1986, Parliament passed the Consumer Protection Act, which established a three-tiered consumer grievance redress system to give remedies for substandard “goods and services” across the country. In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that “medical services” would fall under the Consumer Protection Act of 1986’s “goods and services” category. As a result, medical claimants no longer have to travel to court and pay high court fees, and they began submitting claims in Consumer Tribunals, which accounted for the majority of the cases handled by the Consumer Tribunals at the time.
From 2008 to 2014, the National Consumer Dispute Redressal Service delivered 154 medical malpractice lawsuits, accounting for 8% of its total judgments. Surprisingly, the claimants won over the medical practitioner in nearly 45 percent of the cases. From the moment the lawsuit was filed until the final verdict was reached, it took an average of 11.7 years.

An Indian-American couple traveled to Kolkata a year after the Uphaar tragedy to meet their relatives. The husband was a medical doctor, and the wife was a child psychologist who was 36 years old. The wife had a treatable but uncommon skin ailment and was admitted to the AMRI hospital, where she was cared for by a number of famous medical professionals. The treatment involved the administration of massive amounts of Depomoderol, which exacerbated the wife’s condition and finally led to her death.

Dr. Kunal Saha, the dissatisfied spouse, filed a complaint with the West Bengal Medical Council, which cleared the doctors. The spouse then filed criminal charges against the doctors under section 304A of the Indian Penal Code. The doctors were convicted by the West Bengal courts, but the Calcutta High Court overruled the District Court’s decision and exonerated them. Regrettably, the Supreme Court confirmed the Calcutta High Court’s decision regarding criminal responsibility.

Dr. Saha’s wife died as a result of the negligence of the three AMRI doctors, and a claim of Rs. 77 crore was made with the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC). The National Consumer Disputes Redress Commission (NCDRC) dismissed his claim and complaint in 2006. Dr. Saha represented himself in all of these proceedings, which cost him in a number of ways: (1) He had to travel 50 times from the United States to India as the case advanced. (2) Due to legal and travel expenditures, he declared bankruptcy in the United States of America. (3) He did not take up his academic position in Cincinnati, and as a result, his academic career was cut short.

Finally, the Supreme Court of India rejected the NCDRC’s ruling in 2009, and the matter was referred back to the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission to determine the amount of compensation. In October 2011, the commission finally awarded Dr. Saha damages of Rs. 1.5 crore. When the matter was appealed to the Supreme Court, a sum of Rs. 6.08 crores was awarded to Dr. Saha, directed against the doctors and the hospital, plus interest of 6% per annum, more than double the compensation previously awarded.

The Saha Case is a classic example of a one-on-one case that resulted in a milestone in Indian tort law. The Supreme Court granted increased damages because of the loss of a long career with a high American income that was harmed. The Saha case is an interesting reversal of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, in which the perpetrator was an American Union Carbide Company and the victims were Indians, whereas the Saha case involved Indian wrongdoers and an American victim. We still don’t know if the broad tort damages based on monetary losses perpetuate gaps and inequality among the general public.

The Future of Torts in India – Conclusion

There is no empirical evidence to claim that India is a litigious nation. The truth is that Indian courts move slowly not because they are inept, but because there are too many cases for too few judges. We need to increase capacity in order to make our judicial system more strong, not just for civil cases, but also for criminal proceedings. Personal harm, which is addressed by tortious litigation elsewhere in the globe, requires significant attention in India, as has been adequately portrayed in this study. Tortious responsibility claims, both against the government and private parties, abound in the country. The procedure of approaching the court, on the other hand, is so delirious for the plaintiff that they are better off not going.

In general, as things stand now, those with money and privilege are able to buy their way out of the judicial system and avoid responsibility for their own negligent behavior. With little resources, it is the poor who must fight the system and the aggressor. This deplorable state of affairs necessitates a reassessment of tort litigation in India. Perhaps there is a need to constantly issue statutes that correctly deal with diverse tort law principles, rather than codifying and therefore making the entire branch immobile. A strong civil-litigation system will undoubtedly strengthen the government’s and citizens’ discipline, while also protecting human life and dignity. A strong civil-litigation system will undoubtedly strengthen the government’s and citizens’ discipline, while also elevating the value of human life and dignity for all people, not just the wealthy.

This article is written by Uday Todarwal.

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