26 Oct 2009

Victims of Jaipur Golden Fire Tragedy to get compensation: High Court

In a recent decision the Delhi High Court has granted compensation to the victims of the fire-tragedy which took place on 4th April, 2004 at about 10.30 p.m. at Mitra Wali Gali, Roshnara Road, Delhi had stored a consignment of rodent killing pesticides which contained Aluminum Phosphate and Zinc Phosphate. The deaths, it seems, were accentuated by the fact that fire brigade officials poured water over the fire in a bid to extinguish it where "due to pouring of water, Aluminum Phosphate and Zinc Phosphate reacted with water resulting in emission of highly poisonous Phosphine gas which continued to emit till 7th April, 2004." As a result of these, five people died and many admitted sick.

The High Court noted that the person "was using the premises at Roshnara Road as a godown without any prior mandatory statutory permission" from the MCD and concluded from the medical and police records that the deaths were indeed caused due to the inhalation of the poisonous gases emitted from the incident-scene. On these facts, rejecting the arguments of the defending parties on all scores, the Court declared the law categorically and clearly to this effect that there was no stopping the court from granting compensation for the alleged acts and omissions of the parties which led to the death of many a poor victims of the incident. 

Dismissing the contentions relating to delay in filing petitions and extraneous motivations behind the filing of the petitions, the Court quoted a decision of the Karnataka High Court to the effect that "Careless conduct and casual approach adopted by the respondent-State in the matter of fundamental right dealing with life and safety forced the petitioners, belonging to a noble profession of advocates to put off their robes and stand before us as litigant seeking justice for the legal heirs of the dead and compensation for the injured. The deaths and injuries are admitted to have been caused on account of the collapse of a building constructed by the builders by using substandard material besides ignoring the structural guidelines and protections. The rolling tears and the soar wailing cries of the victims of the tragedy did not affect the mighty and careless State but did touch the tender hearts of the petitioners, who initiated this action in public interest with prayer for granting appropriate relief to the needy and deserving."

Further, noting that criminal proceedings pending against those operating the godown were not a bar for the High Court to examine the claim for compensation, the Court also set aside the plea of the godown owner that the victims had been adequately compensation by them having been paid Rs. 5,000/- each and a settlement arrived between the victims' kin by holding that even if there was a settlement, it was "unfair, unreasonable, unconscionable, opposed to public policy and consequently void". Holding that the law had for long been settled that compensation could be granted in a writ petition by the High Court, the Court applied the time-tested rule of Ryland v. Flether to invoke the doctrine of strict liability against the defending parties. To this regard, the Court noted;
the dispute raised with regard to cause of fire is irrelevant for attraction of the rule in Ryland Vs. Fletcher inasmuch as one has only to see as to whether a person has put the land to a non-natural use and whether as a consequence of such use, some damage has been caused to the public at large. In the present instance, the above test is admittedly satisfied as respondent no. 5‟s premises was situated in a residential area which could not have been used as a godown and further as a consequence of fire in the godown containing consignment of pesticides, gas escaped which caused loss of lives and injuries to people living in the neighbourhood. Accordingly, the rule in Ryland vs. Fletcher is attracted in the present case.
From the undisputed facts, it is apparent that respondent no. 5 was engaged in an inherently dangerous or hazardous activity as it had stored chemical pesticides and consequently, its duty of care was absolute. Accordingly, the exceptions to strict liability as evolved in Ryland Vs. Fletcher rule are not applicable. Therefore, respondent no.5 is liable to compensate the victims of the gas and fire tragedy in accordance with the strict liability principle evolved by the Supreme Court in M.C. Mehta case (supra).
Going further, the bunch of Supreme Court decisions were quoted to the effect of grant of compensation in cases involving strict liability on the part of those operating in hazardous substances. The High Court specifically noted that even the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) was liable as it was "remiss and negligent in discharging its statutory obligations and in ensuring that a citizen‟s fundamental right to health and pollution free environment was not infringed." In the aforesaid circumstances and declaration of law, the High Court granted stated compensation to all the victims and more importantly, directed the MCD to bear 15 percent of the compensation ordered. Have a look at the emphatic decision.

No comments: