Supreme Court: In the 2006 Meerut fire case, the bench of Hemant Gupta and V. Ramasubramanian, JJ has held the Organizers responsible for the incident and not the Contractor as the Contractor was only responsible for executing work as assigned to him by the Organizers. It observed,
“The contractor has worked for the Organizers and not for the victims. Hence, the Organizers alone are responsible to protect the life and liberty of the victims.”
The court was dealing with the writ petition preferred by the victims of the fire tragedy which occurred on 10.4.2006, the last day of the India Brand Consumer Show organized at Victoria Park, Meerut, Uttar Pradesh by Mrinal Events and Expositions. The incident claimed the lives of 65 persons and left 161 or more with burn injuries.
The State of Uttar Pradesh had appointed Justice O.P. Garg (Retired) in terms of provisions of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 19521 vide order dated 2.6.2006 but the report submitted by this Commission was not found to be sustainable in Sanjay Gupta v. State of Uttar Pradesh, (2015) 5 SCC 283. The Court then appointed Justice S.B. Sinha (Retired) as a one-man Commission.
Holding that the report of the one-man Commission does not suffer from any infirmity so as to absolve the Organizers from their responsibility of organizing the exhibition, the Court made the following observations:
- The victims or their families visited exhibition on the invitation of the Organizers and not that of the Contractor. The Organizers were supposed to make arrangements for putting up the exhibition hall, providing electricity and water and also the food stalls for the facility of the victims/visitors. They cannot now take shelter on the ground that the Contractor who was given work order was an independent contractor and the victims should seek remedy from him.
- The Court Commissioner found that the contract with the Contractor was neither a turn-key project nor was he appointed as an independent contractor. Therefore, the argument of the Organizers that they are not liable for the acts of omission or commission on the part of the contractor was rejected by the Commission. Even otherwise, the Organizers were vicariously liable for the alleged acts of negligence on the part of the contractor. The Contractor was only responsible for executing work as assigned to him by the Organizers.
- The ticket proceeds were collected by the Organizers. It is the responsibility of the Organizers, having collected the entry fee, to ensure the safety and well-being of the visitors. The Organizers have failed in that duty causing loss of life of the innocent victims who came to see the exhibition, which was purely a commercial event with an intention to earn profit by the organizers.
- The argument that the Court Commissioner has not given any conclusive finding on the cause of the fire is not relevant in determining the civil liability. The maxim res ipsa loquitur would be applicable as organizing an exhibition of such substantial magnitude without proper and adequate safety factors which may endanger the life of the visitors, has been rightly found by the Court Commissioner, an act of negligence including negligence of the officers of the State.
It is pertinent to note that,
- The State has paid Rs.2 lakhs each as ex-gratia compensation to the families of the deceased, Rs.1 lakh each for the persons who suffered serious injuries and Rs.50,000/- each for the persons suffering from minor injuries.
- The Union of India has paid ex-gratia compensation of Rs.1 lakh each for the deceased and Rs.50,000/- each for those with serious injuries. In terms of the order of this Court, the State has paid Rs.5 lakhs each to the deceased, Rs.2 lakhs each to the victims suffering serious injuries and Rs. 75,000/- each to the victims suffering minor injuries, apart from the amount paid by the Union of India.
- The list of deceased and injured persons has been produced but the amount of compensation payable to each of the victim including the families of the deceased have not been computed and such amount is required to be computed in accordance with the principles of just compensation as in the case of accident under the Motor Vehicle Act, 1988 by the Motor Accidents Claims Tribunal.
The Court, hence, requested the Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court to entrust the work of determination of compensation to a Judicial Officer in the rank of District Judge/Additional District Judge at Meerut within two weeks of the present order to work exclusively on the question of determination of the compensation on day-to-day basis. Further,
- The High Court shall provide all necessary infrastructure to enable the Officer to discharge his duties.
- The nominated Judicial Officer may permit the parties to lead such evidence as may be permissible.
- The nominated Judicial Officer shall calculate the amount of compensation and forward the report to the Supreme Court for consideration in respect of compensation in accordance with law.
- The amount paid by the State and a sum of Rs.30 Lakhs deposited by the Organizers has been disbursed to the victims. The said amount, excluding the ex-gratia payments made, be taken into consideration while determination of the amount payable by the Organizers and the State.
It is important to note that as per the report submitted by the Commission, the liability between the Organizers and the State was fixed as 60:40 and no dispute was raised regarding percentage of liability determined by any of the party.
The Court will now take up the matter after 4 months.
[Sanjay Gupta v. State of Uttar Pradesh, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 443, decided on 12.04.2022]
For Organizers: Senior Advocate Shanti Bhushan
For Writ Petitioners: Senior Advocate Vikas Pahwa