Supreme Court: While hearing the appeal filed by Maharashtra SRTC, the Division Bench comprising of M. R. Shah* and B. V. Nagarathna, JJ., held that punishment of dismissal from service per se cannot be said to be an unfair labour practice for being disproportionate to the misconduct proved.
On 23-10-1992 when the respondent, a bus driver employed by the MSRTC, was driving a bus, he met with an accident with a jeep coming from the opposite direction. The allegation against the respondent-driver was that instead of taking the bus to the left side, he took the bus to the extreme right and as a result, the jeep and the bus collided. The accident resulted in death of four passengers on the spot and six passengers were seriously injured. The impact of the collision was so high that the jeep was pushed back by about 25 feet. The driver of the jeep also sustained injuries. The respondent was subjected to disciplinary enquiry, and was consequently dismissed from service. A criminal case was also lodged against the driver under Section 279 of IPC for negligent and rash driving. However, he came to be acquitted.
Findings of the Labour Court and Industrial Tribunal
The Labour Court upheld the order of dismissal. In a revision application the Industrial Tribunal considering the acquittal of the respondent in criminal proceedings and observing that the drivers of both the vehicles were negligent (contributory negligence), the Industrial Tribunal exercised powers under item 1(g) of Schedule IV of the Maharashtra Recognition of Trade Unions and Prevention of Unfair Labour Practices Act, 1971; and held that the order of dismissal was disproportionate to the misconduct proved. Hence, the Tribunal ordered reinstatement of the respondent without back wages but with continuity of service.
Dismissal by the High Court
The order of the Tribunal was challenged before the High Court by the appellant-MSRTC. The High Court, by the impugned order and judgment had only dismissed the appeal but also directed the appellant to pay to the respondent back wages with effect from 01-11-2003 to 31-05-2018 i.e. which was the date of his superannuation. The High Court also directed that the respondent should also be entitled to retiral benefits on the basis of continuity of service.
Noticing that while acquitting the accused–respondent the Criminal Court observed that the prosecution failed to prove that the incident occurred due to rash and negligent driving of the accused-respondent only and none else, and acquitted the respondent by classifying the case as one of a contributory negligence, the Bench stated that even if it was assumed that even driver of the jeep was also negligent, that did not that the respondent was not negligent at all. Hence, it could not absolve him of the misconduct.
Further, the Criminal Court acquitted the respondent on the hostility of the witnesses; the evidence led by the interested witnesses; lacuna in examination of the investigating officer; panch for the spot panchnama of the incident, etc. On the contrary in the departmental proceedings the misconduct of driving the vehicle rashly and negligently which caused accident and due to which four persons died has been established and proved. Therefore, the Bench said,
“An acquittal in a criminal trial has no bearing or relevance on the disciplinary proceedings as the standard of proof in both the cases are different and the proceedings operate in different fields and with different objectives.”
Therefore, the Bench concluded that the Industrial Court had erred in giving much stress on the acquittal of the respondent by the criminal court.
Whether punishment of dismissal can be said to be an unfair labour practice for being disproportionate to the misconduct proved?
The Bench observed that the Labour Court did not interfere with the order of dismissal by giving cogent reasons and after re-appreciating the entire evidence on record including the order of acquittal passed by the criminal court. However, the Industrial Tribunal interfered with the order of dismissal solely on the ground that punishment of dismissal was disproportionate to the misconduct proved and the same can be said to be to be unfair labour practice as per item 1(g) of Schedule IV of the MRTU & PULP Act, 1971. The Bench stated,
Clause No. 1(g) can only be invoked in a case where it is found that dismissal of an employee is for misconduct of a minor or technical character, without having any regard to the nature of the particular misconduct or the past record of service of the employee, so as to amount to a shockingly disproportionate punishment.
However, as per the appellant, the respondent was in service for three years and during three years’ service tenure he was punished four times, therefore, the Bench opined that it could not be said that the order of dismissal was without having any regard to the past record of the service of the respondent. Consequently, the Industrial Court wrongly invoked clause 1(g) of Schedule IV of the MRTU & PULP Act, 1971 as it could not be said that the dismissal of the respondent was for misconduct of a minor or technical character, without having any regard to the nature of the misconduct.
In the backdrop of above, the Bench concluded that the Industrial Court committed a grave error and had exceeded in its jurisdiction while interfering with the order of dismissal passed by the disciplinary authority. Similarly, the impugned judgment of the High Court directing the appellant to pay wages to the respondent also could not have been passed in a petition filed by the appellant. The Bench explained, it was not a petition filed by the workman and the relief granted was beyond the scope and ambit of the controversy before the High Court.
Accordingly, the impugned order and judgment was quashed and set aside and the judgment and Award of the Labour Court was restored. The order of dismissal passed by the disciplinary authority was upheld.
[Maharashtra SRTC v. Dilip Uttam Jayabhay, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1, decided on 03-01-2022]
*Judgment by: Justice M. R. Shah
For Maharashtra SRTC: Mayuri Raghuvanshi, Advocate
For the Respondent: Nishanth Patil, Advocate
Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has put this report together