“Sorry we kept you waiting this long”, Madras HC ends 24-year wait for compensation

Meera Emmanuel

The Madras High Court last week rendered its apologies to a claimant who waited 24 years to receive compensation for the death of her son in a motor vehicle accident.

In finding that the claimant-mother was denied compensation following protracted legal proceedings on grounds that were liable to be dismissed, Justice N Seshasayee said,

Hopefully the agony of this litigant must end now.  This court only intends to convey to this litigant: ‘Sorry, we have kept you waiting this long to secure your right.’”

Following her son’s death in 1993, the claimant had initially approached authorities under the Workman’s Compensation Act, 1923. Her claim was however summarily rejected on the ground that the deceased was not adequately identified.

Instead of preferring an appeal under the Act, the claimant chose to move the Motor Vehicles Accident Tribunal (MACT) under Section 166 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. An objection was raised that the claimant was barred from doing so in view of the doctrine of election under Section 167 of the MV Act. That provision states,

167. Option regarding claims for compensation in certain cases: Notwithstanding anything contained in the Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923 (8 of 1923) where the death of, or bodily injury to, any person gives rise to a claim for compensation under this Act and also under the Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923, the person entitled to compensation may without prejudice to the provisions of Chapter X claim such compensation under either of those Acts but not under both.

The MACT awarded compensation amounting to Rs.3,47,000/- payable with interest at 7.5% p.a. The insurance company then preferred an appeal before the High Court, contending was not allowed to approach two different fora for the same cause of action, as laid down in s. 167.

Prior to elaborating on the interpretation of the provision, the Court observed that the operation of law has two facets:

(a) Where it requires those who it intends to focus for its application as its subjects to submit to it; and (b) where it is expected to display a reflexive reaction to address a rights-violation situation to demonstrate it.”

Given these twin objectives, it was held,

it would be a contradiction if law were to be converted into a laboratory material for intellectual analysis sans its organic objective and functional utility.

The main question before the High Court was,

“Where, however,a claimant elects the choice of his forum but has not received the remedy on his cause of action which he otherwise is entitled to, does his right to move the other remedial forum stand foreclosed?”

In deciding this question, Justice Seshayee relied on the verdict in Beepathuma and Others v. Velasari Shankaranarayana Kadambolithaya and Othersand other judgments, to hold that Section 167 of the MV Act only deals with choice of remedial forums and not the remedy per se.

It was held that the objective of electing a forum is to deny payment of double compensation. Following the observations of Lord Atkin in Scotland in King v Edinburgh Colleries Co., the Court held that election of forum will not be conclusive except in cases where proceedings have reached their conclusion.

Justice Seshayee also pulled up the Commissioner of the Workmen’s Compensation Tribunal for his “shocking” dismissal of the claim.

“The Commissioner under the Workmen Compensation Act had denied her
compensation on the ground that the doctor who conducted autopsy on the body of the deceased had omitted to record the name of the dead in his postmortem certificate

Shockingly if not atrociously enough, the Workmen’s Compensation Tribunal did not even feel it a duty to undertake the arithmetical effort of computing the value of loss of a life to complete its exercise.”

In deciding the central issue, the Court held,

“The doctrine of election will operate only when the forum of first choice conclusively has quantified the compensation payable which has become final as regards the Tribunal that has passed it. Till that point the insulation against double payment for the same loss is preserved.”

On these grounds, the Court held that the award of the MACT in favour of the claimant was liable to be affirmed.

Read copy of order below.

Bar and Bench - Indian Legal news