When The Accident Tells Its Own Story The Law Must Gear Up

Update: 2024-05-20 09:45 GMT
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The recent tragedy at Ghatkopar Mumbai is an accident that tells its own story of utter negligence towards human lives. On 13.05.2024 evening, a 120x120-foot hoarding collapsed on a petrol pump at Chheda Nagar in the Ghatkopar area of Mumbai due to gusty winds and unseasonal rains. At least 16 people have been killed in the incident, while 75 others were reportedly injured. According to...

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The recent tragedy at Ghatkopar Mumbai is an accident that tells its own story of utter negligence towards human lives. On 13.05.2024 evening, a 120x120-foot hoarding collapsed on a petrol pump at Chheda Nagar in the Ghatkopar area of Mumbai due to gusty winds and unseasonal rains. At least 16 people have been killed in the incident, while 75 others were reportedly injured. According to the BMC, the collapsed hoarding stood on the Government Railway Police's (GRP) land. It is claimed that the hoardings were raised without obtaining permission from the civic authority and there are many other hoardings which have been erected without obtaing permission from the civic body. The Mumbai civic body has now issued notices to the Central Railway and the Western Railway administrations to remove oversized hoardings erected on their land. The negligence here is of the persons who gave the green signal for erecting the hoarding, and those who constructed it without obtaining the permission from the civic body, and without its proper structural audit. The hoarding violated the regulations for hoardings by BMC, exceeding the maximum permitted size of 40 X 40 sq. ft., as it measured 120 X 120 sq. ft. and weighed about 250 ton. This egregious violation not only reflects the audacity of those flouting the rules but also exposes the glaring gaps in monitoring and enforcemnt. The fact that no permission was obtained for the installation of the hoarding shows a blatant disregard for legal protocols and public safety.

The Ghatkopar like incident is not a new phenomenon in India where the negligence is apparent on the face of it, which has led to the loss of lives. The recent tragedy in Morbi Gujarat, where more than 130 people had lost their lives including children and many injured had shaken one and all. And why only the Morbi accident, innocent people have lost lives in many such accidents in the past like collapse of the foot over bridge in Mumabi's Shivajii Railway Terminus in 2019, collapse of the Majerhat bridge in Kolkata in 2018 or the bridge collapse in Darjeeling in 2011 or even many railway accidents. Instead of politicization of the issue and finger pointing for scoring political points can this incident in Ghatkopar be used as a turning point to bring a change in how we apply the criminal law, especially now when we are at the cusp of change as the new criminal laws are to be enforced from July 2024. How to bring the offenders to justice in such public accidents without delays? In a conventional criminal trial the accused enjoys the presumption of innocence and the prosecution carries the heavy burden of proving the guilt of the accused beyond all reasonable doubts which is an arduous task but should this conventional approach of proving guilt be applied in such public accidents as well where the facts speak for themselves about the negligence?

The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is entrenched in our law of torts which imposes strict liability in cases of negligence. The maxim is described …”Where the thing is shown to be under the management of the defendant or his servants, and the accident is such as in the ordinary course of things does not happen if those who have the management use proper care, it affords reasonable evidence, in the absence of explanation by the defendants, that the accident arose from want of care.” The principal function of the maxim is to prevent the injustice which would result if a plaintiff were invariably compelled to prove the precise cause of the accident and the defendant responsible for it even when the facts bearing on these matters are at the outset unknown to him and often within the knowledge of the defendant.

This principle is used under the law of tort for awarding damages in cases of negligence but should it not be applied in a situation like the Ghatkopar or the Morbi tragedy to fasten criminal liability where the bridge or the hoarding was exclusively under the management of a private company or individual and the accident would certainly not have happened in the ordinary course of things if those who had the management used proper care. Not going into the political hullabaloo, but the fact that the hoarding was so huge and beyond the permissible norms and was erected without obtaining the necessary permission in a busy area like Ghatkopar is an act speaking for itself about the negligence of the individuals who erected the hoarding in utter disregard to the law and public safety. In public accidents like these the maxim res ipsa loquitur must be applied even in criminal law to ensure that the wheels of justice move swiftly without the prosecution carrying the heavy burden of proving guilt beyond all reasonable doubts and the accused enjoying the presumption of innocence. We have provisions like S. 113 A (Presumption as to abetment of suicide by a married woman) & 113 B (Presumption as to dowry death) in the Evidence Act which raise a presumption against the accused in cases of abetment of suicide by a married women and dowry death to provide speedy justice to the victims. Likewise, there is a need to import the application of the maxim res ipsa loquitur in criminal law in cases of public accidents which tell their own story of gross negligence resulting in the loss of innocent lives, as it is the Constitutional obligation of the State not only to protect the lives of its citizens but also to provide speedy justice which must not only be done but must be seen to be done.

The author is a Judge Small Causes at Ghaziabad Uttar Pradesh. The views expressed are personal.

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