29 Nov 2009

Compensation to Dabwali Fire Tragedy Victims: High Court

We had earlier this month written about the award of compensation granted by the Delhi High Court to the victims of Jaipur Golden Fire Tragedy and by the Gujarat High Court to the kin of those who died in the 1988 Ahmedabad airline crash. Recently now the Punjab and Haryana High Court has directed that compensation be made to the kin of those four hundred and forty six precious people (mostly children and women) who lost their lives on 23rd of December 1995 at a fire tragedy which took place at the Annual Prize Distribution Function of D.A.V. Centenary Public School, Mandi Dabwali in District Sirsa in the State of Haryana.

With various petitions filed to address the claims of the victims, finally a Commission was setup in 2003 which in its series of reports granted the compensation to the kin of the victims accordingly to the earning capacity and employing other factors. The recommendation for compensation made by the Commission was challenged in the High Court. The argument raised by the School authorities was that there was a lack of space in the school premises itself and therefore they had to book another place for carrying out the annual function. The High Court, however, was not impressed. It meticulously examined the various factual foundations of the report made by the Commission to conclude as under;

There is, in our opinion, no infirmity leave alone, any perversity in the findings of fact recorded by the Commission. The material on record was more than sufficient for the Commission to support the findings recorded by it and the legal inferences that inexorably flow from such findings. The very fact that the School did not have enough space in its own premises to organize the Annual Function, did not absolve it of the legal obligation to act prudently and to ensure that the children, staff and the parents invited to such a function are safe wherever the same may be held. That there was no other suitable place in Dabwali where the function could be held also did not mean that the School could hold the function in a Marriage Palace which admittedly had no safety measures whatsoever to take care of any emergency.
The argument that the place chosen by the School was functional and the School had no reason to believe that it would not have sufficient safety measures as required under law has not impressed us. The standard of care that may be required would vary from case to case and situation to situation. In the case of children of tender age, the care that the School Authorities were expected to take regarding their safety was much higher in comparison to the care which may be required qua adults. Children are under a disability. They need care and protection more than the grown ups. Parents who leave their children to the care of the School are entitled to rest assured that the School would act prudently while dealing with their wards and would do nothing that may in the slightest expose them to danger or compromise their safety and security. The choice of the venue for the function was, therefore, an onerous decision which the School ought to have taken having regard to all the attendant risks, hazards and imponderables that could be reasonably foreseen in a public function attended not only by the children, parents and teachers but even the general public. The School ought to have realized that holding of a function in a Marriage Palace may not be the best option especially when the Marriage Palace, did not have the statutory completion certificate and was promoting its commercial interests by offering the place gratis to the School. The School ought to have known that in a function which is open to general public, a Pandal with a capacity of 500 to 600 persons spread over no more than an area measuring 100' X 70', a gathering of 1200 to 1500 persons could result in a stampede and expose to harm everyone participating in the function especially the children who were otherwise incapable of taking care of their safety. The school ought to have known that the availability of only one exit gate from the Marriage Palace and one from the Pandal would prove insufficient in the event of any untoward incident taking place in the course of function. The School ought to have taken care to restrict the number of invitees to what could be reasonably accommodated instead of allowing all and sundry to attend and in the process increase the chances of a stampede. The School ought to have seen that sufficient circulation space in and around the seating area was provided so that the people could quickly move out of the place in case the need so arose. Suffice it to say that a reasonably prudent School Management organizing an annual function could and indeed was duty bound to take care and ensure that no harm came to anyone who attended the function whether as an invitee or otherwise, by taking appropriate steps to provide for safety measures like fire fighting arrangements, exit points, space for circulation, crowd control and the like. And that obligation remained unmitigated regardless whether the function was held within the School premises or at another place chosen by the Management of the School, because the children continued to be under the care of the School and so did the obligation of the School to prevent any harm coming to them. The principle of proximity creating an obligation for the School qua its students and invitees to the function would make the School liable for any negligence in either the choice of the venue of the function or the degree of care that ought to have been taken to prevent any harm coming to those who had come to watch and/or participate in the event. 
Even the test of foreseeability of the harm must be held to have been satisfied from the point of view of an ordinary and reasonably prudent person. That is because a reasonably prudent person could foresee danger to those attending a function in a place big enough to accommodate only 500 to 600 people but stretched beyond its capacity to accommodate double that number. It could also be foreseen that there was hardly any space for circulation within the Pandal. In the event of any mishap, a stampede was inevitable in which women and children who were attending in large number would be worst sufferers as indeed they turned out to be. Loose electric connections, crude lighting arrangements and an electric load heavier than what the entire system was geared to take was a recipe for a human tragedy to occur.
Absence of any fire extinguishing arrangements within the Pandal and a single exit from the Pandal hardly enough for the people to run out in the event of fire could have put any prudent person handling such an event to serious thought about the safety of those attending the function especially the small children who had been brought to the venue in large numbers. Applying the foresight of a reasonable person to the fact situation which the evidence established before the Commission, we have no hesitation in holding that the Commission was justified in declaring that the School was negligent in the matter of arranging the function and providing security qua those whom it owed the duty to take care.
Confirming the liability of the owners of the premise on which the accident took place, the High Court applied the concept of principal-agent relationship to hold thus;

The legal relationship between the School and the Marriage Palace as Principal and Agent apart, both were on the principles of common law liable to third parties as occupier of the premises whichwent up in flames because of their negligence to take care. ... In the instant case while the School had the absolute right to restrict the entry to the venue of the function being organized by it and everything that would make the function go as per its requirements, the owners had not completely given up their control over the premises, and were indeed present at the time the incident occurred. The facts and circumstances brought on record in the course of the enquiry establish that the School and the Marriage Palace owners were both occupying the premises and were, therefore, under an obligation to take care for the safety of not only the students, but everyone who entered the premises on their invitation or with their permission specific or implied. As to the obligation of an occupier to take care qua his invitees a long line of English decisions have settled the legal position.
The High Court further examined each of the cases of the categories of victims to confirm the award and even to increase the award of compensation in some cases. In the retrospect, however, the High Court also noted that the payment of compensation alone was not sufficient. Requiring the responsible authorities to look after the enforcement of safety measures, the High Court duly recorded its concern in the following words "Payment of compensation to those, who survived or the next of kin of those, who did not, may never heal their wounds completely nor make any material difference in the ground realities unless all those concerned do some introspection to identify the causes for such tragedies and take corrective steps to prevent their recurrence in future. That is because human tragedies of such magnitude are more often than not caused as much by lack of care and caution as by the all round failure of public authorities statutory or otherwise in the due and proper discharge of their functions and duties especially those concerning enforcement of safety measures."

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