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Uphaar Cinema Case Study

A visit to the XYZ theatre in South Delhi became the worst nightmare after the bigger of the two installed transformers caught fire. These transformers had developed issues repeatedly but the repairs had not been satisfactory. On the morning of the incident, another repair had caused loose connections which led to sparks that brought the whole hall down. While 750 people on the first floor of the cinema managed to flee, those in the balcony were not that lucky. Illegal extensions, blocked exits, and additional seats aggravated the situation as smoke filled the hall killing 59 people due to asphyxia and injuring 100 in a stampede that followed the fire.

Analysis of Arguments:
Arguments of all the parties’ complainant (A), respondent 1 owner of theatre (B), respondent 2 DVB (C) and electrical inspector (D), are illustrated here-
1. Complainant/Appellant (A)
That the defendants namely Delhi Vidyut Board (`DVB'), MCD, the Licensing Authority and the owner of theatre was completely negligent, these authorities not only failed in the discharge of their statutory obligations, but acted in a manner which was prejudicial to public interest by failing to observe the standards set under the statute and the rules framed for the purpose of preventing fire hazards.

·That they issued licenses and permits in complete disregard of the mandatory conditions of inspection which were required to ensure that the minimum safeguards were provided in the cinema theatre.

·That this act of respondents showing callous disregard to the fundamental and indefeasible rights guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, of the theatre going public, in failing to provide safe premises, free from reasonably foreseeable hazards.

2. Respondents:
a. Owner (B) –The owner denied all the allegations made to them by saying-

·That they have taken all the necessary steps and got transformer repaired by the officials of DVB and the negligence on the part of DVB in maintaining the transformers and repairs led to the root cause of the incident the starting of the fire.

· That DVB violated several provisions of the Electricity Act and the Rules. It had not obtained the approval of the Electrical Inspector for installation of the transformer as required under the Rules, there should be a channel for draining of oil with a pit so that any leaking oil would not spread outside. The transformer had to be checked periodically and subjected to regular maintenance.

b. DVB (C) - DVB also denied the allegations of negligence by saying-

·That if the owner had taken the necessary usual precautions and security measures expected of a theatre owner, even if the transformer had caught fire, it would not have spread to nearby cars or other stored articles.

· That the owner had violated the municipal bye-laws by making several unauthorised alterations in the structure which all contributed to the incident. In particular, such a catastrophic incident would not have happened if the parapet wall had not been raised to the roof level. If the said wall had not been raised, the fumes would have dispersed in the atmospheric air.

·That if one of the exits in the balcony had not been blocked by construction of an owner's box and if the right side gangway had not been closed by fixing seats, the visitors in the balcony could have easily dispersed through the other gangway and exit into the unaffected staircase.

3. State electricity Board and electrical inspector (D):
The electrical inspector in his report analysed the whole situation and came to this conclusion that the negligence has been done from both the respondents. Following causes can be considered:
·No functional public announcement system- no announcement was made when the fire broke out.

·No emergency lights, foot lights, exit lights-The cinema hall was in pitch darkness when the fire broke out.

·Blocked gangways-The hall had made unauthorized extensions and additions to seats.

·Blocked exits-many exit doors including the one leading to the terrace and gates were locked.

·Unauthorised use of premises-Shops were being run from spaces supposed to be empty.

·Installation and maintenance of the transformer-where the fire had started, in violation of Indian Electricity Rules no periodic maintenance, no fire extinguishers, no isolation device, haphazard electrical cables.

Issues:
1.Did the Respondents owe a duty of care towards appellants?
1.1 If yes, what are the components of the duty of care and were they met?
1.2 Do their breach amount to negligence?
1.3 Can actions taken in good faith trump negligence?

2.How should liability be distributed amongst the respondents?
2.1 Who had the highest onus to ensure compliance standards?
2.2 What are the levels of checking required to be done by the inspector?

3.What are the reasons behind the procedural delay in the matter and can they be reasonably justified?

4.Can a fine offset a jail term in so heinous a tragedy?
4.1 Compensation Vs. Imprisonment?
4.2 Deterrence only (High compensation) Vs. Retributive (Imprisonment)

Probable Solutions:
# Surprise inspections by the Authorities.
# Mock Fire Drills.
# Proper infrastructure and safety standards to be followed
# There should be a cooling off period of at least 12 hours after any electric repairs.

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