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A Clock Tower Case Validating Res Ipsa Loquitor

Case Title: Municipal Corporation of Delhi vs Subhagwanti & Others
Citation: 1966 AIR 1750
Name of the Court: Supreme Court of India
Name of the Judges: Hon'ble Justice K. Subba Rao, Hon'ble Justice Vaidynathier Ramaswami
Name of the Parties:
Appellants: Municipal Corporation of Delhi vs Respondent: Subhagwanti and Others

Brief Facts:
  • The clock tower of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, in Chandni Chowk collapsed, resulting in the death of Subhagwanti.
  • Following this incident three legal heirs of Subhagwanti separately filed lawsuits in a trial court seeking compensation and holding the MCD responsible for negligence.
  • It has been brought to light that the clock tower was never thoroughly inspected for any flaws rendering it unsafe. The trial court ruled in favor of Subhagwanti recognizing the MCD's negligence.
  • In response, the MCD appealed to the High Court. The High Court invoked res ipsa loquitur and found the MCD accountable for their negligence.
  • In support of its decision, the High Court considered Mr. Chakravarty, an engineer, and Mr. BS Puri, a retired engineer, as credible sources of evidence. Both experts agreed that the upper levels of the clock tower had deteriorated over time.
  • Mr. Puri expressed his opinion that timely inspections could have prevented this incident. Additionally, it was noted that even the mortar used had lost its cementing properties.
  • The current appeal made by MCD is directed towards challenging both the decision made by HC and Trial Court, within the Supreme Court.

  • Was the Municipal Corporation of Delhi responsible for taking care of and maintaining the Clock Tower, negligent?
  • And if they were, were they liable to compensate for the deaths caused by its collapse?
Rule of Law
Res Ipsa Loquitur:
"Res Ipsa Loquitur is a Latin phrase that means the thing speaks for itself. In the law of torts, it is a very popular doctrine. In cases, where the evidence is itself sufficient to prove the guilt of the defendant, the maxim is used there. So, the maxim points out any circumstantial evidence or an object which itself shows that an act has been committed. It shows that if the defendant was not negligent, the accident would not have happened."

The High Court applied the doctrine res ipsa loquitur as in the circumstances of the case the mere fact that there was a fall of the clock tower, which was exclusively under the ownership and control of the appellant, would justify raising an inference of negligence so as to establish a prima facie case against the appellant.

"There is a special obligation on the owner of adjoining premises for the safety of the structures which he keeps besides the highway. If these structures fall into disrepair so as to be of potential danger to the passersby or to be a nuisance, the owner is liable to anyone using the highway who is injured by reason of the disrepair.

In such a case it is no defense for the owner to prove that he neither knew nor ought to have known of the danger. In other words, the owner is legally responsible irrespective of whether the damage is caused by a patent or a latent defect." [1]

Contentions of the Parties

Trial court:
It was argued in front of the trial court that the Municipal Committee did not conduct an examination of the Clock Tower to check for any defects that could make it unsafe despite the occasional inspections, by the Municipal Engineer.

The Municipal Committee defended itself by stating that it cannot be held responsible for latent defects and that Municipal Committee, as the owner of the buildings abutting on the highway, was liable in negligence if it did not take proper care to maintain the buildings in a safe condition.

High Court:
On behalf of the appellant, it was argued that it cannot be held responsible for latent defects and that there were no signs, on the structure that could have indicated the collapse of the Clock Tower. It is argued that since the faults which caused the Clock Tower to collapse were hidden it would be unfair to hold the appellant for negligence.

Mr. B. S. Puri, a retired Chief Engineer from the Government of India's Public Works Department (P.W.D.) was invited by the Municipal Committee to inspect the Clock Tower after its collapse. Acted as their witness. According to his statement and that of Mr. Chakravarty, the Municipal Engineer it was revealed that the building was 80 years old. Considering the type of mortar used Mr. Puri estimated that the structure of the storey could last 40 to 45 years while another 10 years could be salvaged for the middle storey. Mr. Puri attributed the collapse of the Clock Tower to pressure exerted on its portion, by arches.

Supreme Court:
On behalf of the appellant Mr. Bishen Narain argued that there were no signs, on the structure that could have indicated the collapse of the Clock Tower. It is argued that since the faults which caused the Clock Tower to collapse were hidden it would be unfair to hold the appellant for negligence.

The Clock Tower was constructed 80 years ago. According to the Chief Engineers testimony the expected lifespan of the collapsed building was around 40 or 45 years. Considering that the building had already exceeded its age for mortar deterioration it was incumbent upon the appellant to conduct thorough inspections in order to assess any possible deterioration and determine if any precautions were necessary, for strengthening the structure.

Trial Court:
Three different lawsuits were filed in 1952 and 1951 by the heirs of Shri Ram Parkash, Smt. Panni. Kuldip Raj respectively. These suits were heard by the Court of Subordinate Judge 1st Class, Delhi, who issued a judgment on July 9 1953. The Subordinate Judge awarded a sum of Rs. 25,000 to Shrimati Subhagwanti and other heirs of Ram Parkash in suit No. 552 of 1952 Rs. 15,000 to the heirs of Shrimati Panni Devi in suit No.930 of 1951 and Rs.20,000 to Kuldip Raj in suit No.20 of 1952. According to the trial courts ruling it was the responsibility of the Municipal Committee to ensure that buildings did not pose a danger, to those using the highway as a matter of right.

High Court:
On November 27 1959 the High Court addressed all the appeals together in a judgment. They upheld the decree of Rs. 25,000, in lawsuit number 552 of 1952.

However, they reduced the awarded amount in favor of Munshi Lal and others from Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 7,200 in lawsuit number 930 of 1951. Similarly, they also reduced the awarded amount from Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 9,000 in lawsuit number 20 of 1952.

"The finding of the High Court is that there is no evidence worth the name to show that any such inspections were carried out on behalf of the appellant and, in fact, if any inspections were carried out, they were of casual and perfunctory nature."

The High Court applied the principle of res ipsa loquitur to this case. They concluded that it was the responsibility of the Municipal Committee to conduct inspections to determine if any deterioration had occurred in the structure and if any precautions were necessary, for strengthening the building.

Supreme Court:

According to the Supreme Court the High Court has correctly applied the principle of estimating damages in all three appeals.

The Supreme Court stated:
"In the present case of Subhagwanti etc. there is evidence that Ram Parkash deceased was 30 years old at the time of the accident, his widow Subhagwanti being aged about 28 and his son 14 and daughters 12 and 2 years old. The evidence adduced regarding the income of Ram Parkash and the amount of loss caused to his widow and children was not satisfactory but the High Court considered that the widow and children must have been receiving at least a monthly sum of Rs. 150 for their subsistence and for the education of the children from the deceased Ram Parkash.

The income was capitalized for a period of 15 years and the amount of Rs. 27,000 which was arrived at was more than what the trial court had awarded. The High Court accordingly saw no reason for reducing the amount of damages awarded by the trial court.

In the cases of Tek Chand and his four children, the High Court has estimated that the pecuniary loss caused by the death of his wife should be taken to be Rs. 40 p.m. and if a period of 15 years is taken for the purpose of calculating the total sum, the amount will come to Rs. 7,200. Lastly, in the case of Kuldip Raj, the High Court has calculated the pecuniary loss at the rate of Rs. 50 p.m. and the amount of damages calculated for a period of 15 years would come to Rs. 9,000."

The learned Counsel has not been able to demonstrate any reason that would invalidate the High Court's judgment, on this aspect of the case.

For the reasons expressed, it held that there is no merit in the appeals which were accordingly dismissed with costs.

Precedents Followed:
  • Wringe v. Cohen (1940)
  • Mint v. Good (1951)
  • Walsh v. Holst and Co. Ltd. and Ors. (1958)
  • Nance v. British Columbia Electric railway Company Ltd. (1951)
Present Status:
The case stands up till date and has not been overturned yet by any other judgement of the Hon'ble Supreme Court.


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