Life, limb & the law: SC’s right on liberal compensation for accident victims. But a clogged system is stacked against citizens

News: In a verdict that offers hope to accident survivors, and sets an example for lower courts, the Supreme Court counselled judges to take a liberal view in awarding compensation to those grappling with 100% disabilities.

Need for reforms

Only a fraction of motor insurance claims raised every year – reportedly around Rs 10,000 crore – are settled without dispute, while the socio-economic costs of road accidents in 2018 stood at Rs 1.5 lakh crore.

Lengthy legal battles with face insurance companies

Large scale accidental deaths: Road accidents, which caused 1.3 lakh deaths in 2020, are a subset of the 3.75 lakh accidental deaths caused by fires, electrocution, drowning, structural collapse, factory accidents etc.

Huge backlog of cases: As neutral intermediaries, the police is expected to guide motor accident claims tribunals (MACTs) impartially. But MACTs are backlogged with 9 lakh petitions, a third pending over three years. Appeals to high courts take even longer for disposal. This has forced SC to propose an appellate tribunal. However, most tribunals have also disappointed.

These big numbers underscore not just the need for reforms to humanely compensate accident victims, but also to prevent accidents from happening.

What is the way forward?

First, the legal architecture and infrastructure require upgrades.

Road ministry’s new rules making detailed police investigation of all accidents mandatory from April 1 within a 90-day timeline raise hopes of faster settlement of compensation claims.

Second, fixing tortious liability on public and private authorities can achieve deterrence against negligent conduct. SC’s paltry Rs 750 crore award to Bhopal gas tragedy victims from Union Carbide was a missed opportunity to settle the law.

Recent incidents like the Chintels Paradiso collapse in NCR and the Vaishno Devi stampede must be prosecuted aggressively for fixing civil liabilities, compensating victims and building case laws for the future to safeguard lives.

The Consumer Protection Act 2019 allows for class action suits that allowed a group of consumers with common interest or acting on behalf of all interested consumers to approach consumer forums for compensation. Due to backlogs in consumer courts, this reform has made a slow start.

Source: This post is based on the article “Life, limb & the law: SC’s right on liberal compensation for accident victims. But a clogged system is stacked against citizens” published in Times of India on 30th Mar 22.

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