Case BriefsSupreme Court

Supreme Court: In an interesting case, the 3-judge bench of UU Lalit, Indira Banerjee and KM Joseph*, JJ has held that while in case where there is a blood test or breath test, which indicates that there is no consumption at all, undoubtedly, it would not be open to the insurer to set up the case of exclusion, however, the absence of test may not disable the insurer from establishing a case for exclusion from liability on ground of drunk driving.

How to decide if the driver was “under the influence of intoxicating liquor”?

If in a case, without there being any blood test, circumstances, associated with effects of consumption of alcohol, are proved, it may certainly go to show that the person who drove the vehicle, had come under the influence of alcohol. The manner, in which the vehicle was driven, may again, if it unerringly points to the person having been under the influence of alcohol, be reckoned.

“Evidence, if forthcoming, of an unsteady gait, smell of alcohol, the eyes being congested, apart from, of course, actual consumption of alcohol, either before the commencement of the driving or even during the process of driving, along with the manner in which the accident took place, may point to the driver being under the influence of alcohol. It would be a finding based on the effect of the pleadings and the evidence.”

What does Section 185 of the Motor Vehicles Act state?

Section 185 of the Motor Vehicles Act creates a criminal offence dealing with driving by a drunken person or by a person under the influence of drugs. The Section mandates the proving of the objective criteria of presence of alcohol exceeding 30 mg per 100 ml. of blood in a test by a breath analyser.

Being a criminal offence, it is indisputable that the ingredients of the offence must be established as contemplated by law which means that the case must be proved beyond reasonable doubt and evidence must clearly indicate the level of alcohol in excess of 30 mg in 100 ml blood and what is more such presence must be borne out by a test by a breath analyser. With effect from 01.09.2019, the following words have been added to Section 185, that is “or in any other test including laboratory test”.

“The law does not prohibit driving after consuming liquor and all that is prohibited is, that the percentage of liquor should not exceed 30 mg. per 100 ml. of blood. Therefore, the understanding appears to be that only in circumstances, where the act of driving, having consumed liquor, attracts the wrath of Section 185 and an offence is committed thereunder, that the opprobrium of the Exclusion Clause in the Contract of Insurance, for own damage, is attracted.”

Read the full text of the provision here

Why will lack of scientific material not disable the insurer from establishing a case for exclusion?

If prosecution has not filed a case under Section 185, that would not mean that a competent Forum in an action alleging deficiency of service, under the Consumer Protection Act, is disabled from finding that the vehicle was being driven by the person under the influence of the alcohol.

“The presence of alcohol in excess of 30 mg per 100 ml. of blood is not an indispensable requirement to enable an Insurer to successfully invoke the clause. What is required to be proved is driving by a person under the influence of the alcohol. Drunken driving, a criminal offence, under Section 185 along with its objective criteria of the alcohol-blood level, is not the only way to prove that the person was under the influence of alcohol. If the Breath Analyser or any other test is not performed for any reason, the Insurer cannot be barred from proving his case otherwise.”

Further, should the Insurer fail to establish a case in terms of Section 185 BAL (Blood Analyser Test), it would fail, may not be the proper approach to the issue.

“It is not difficult to contemplate that the accident may take place with the driver being under the influence of alcohol and neither the Breath Test nor the laboratory test is done. A driver after the accident, may run away. A test may never be performed. However, there may be evidence available which may indicate that the vehicle in question was being driven at the time of the accident by a person under the influence of alcohol.”

Hence, in such circumstances, it cannot then be said that merely because there is no test performed, the Insurer would be deprived of its right to establish a case which is well within its rights under the contract.

[IFFCO TOKIO GENERAL INSURANCE COMPANY LTD. v. Pearl Beverages, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 309, decided on 12.04.2021]


*Judgment by Justice KM Joseph

For appellant: Advocate Shivam Singh

For respondent: Senior Advocate Gopal Sankarnarayanan

Case BriefsForeign Courts

Supreme Court of Minnesota: While deciding instant matter wherein the Court had to determine whether the appellant committed a third-degree criminal sexual conduct; i.e. sexual penetration with another person when the actor knows or has reason to know that the complainant is ‘mentally incapacitated’; Justice Paul Thissen held that the legislative definition of ‘mentally incapacitated’ as stated in Minn. Stat. Section 609.341, sub-division 7 (2020), does not include a person who is voluntarily intoxicated by alcohol.

Background

 J.S. was intoxicated after drinking alcohol and taking prescription narcotics. She went to a bar with a friend but was denied entry due to her intoxication. The appellant Francios Momolu Khalil approached J.S. outside of the bar and invited her to accompany him to a supposed party at a house. After arriving at the house, J.S. passed out and woke up to find Khalil penetrating her vagina with his penis. J.S. contacted the Minneapolis police department to report the incident. Upon conducting an investigation Khalil was charged with one count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct involving a mentally incapacitated or physically helpless complainant.

The District Court jury sought to clarify whether it was sufficient that J.S. voluntarily consumed the alcohol or whether Khalil or another person had to have administered the alcohol to J.S. without her agreement for her to qualify as mentally incapacitated. Upon perusal and interpretation of the relevant law, the jury found Khalil to be guilty of third degree criminal sexual conduct.

Minn. Stat. Section 609.341, sub-division 7 (2020) provides that ‘mentally incapacitated’ means that a person under the influence of alcohol, a narcotic, anesthetic, or any other substance, administered to that person, without the person’s agreement, lacks the judgment to give a reasoned consent to sexual contact or sexual penetration.

The issue before the Court was regarding the proper interpretation of ‘mentally incapacitated’ and whether “administered to that person without the person’s agreement” includes that a person can be mentally incapacitated under the statute when such person voluntarily ingests alcohol, or whether the alcohol must be administered to the person without his or her agreement.

Contentions

The State contended that ‘mentally incapacitated’ means that a person under the influence of alcohol, however, consumed, lacks the judgment to give a reasoned consent to sexual contact or sexual penetration.

The State also asserted that Khalil’s reading of the statute is incorrect because people normally do not speak of “administering” alcohol in everyday speech. It is not uncommon, however, for the word “administer” to be paired with the word “alcohol” in the context of criminal sexual conduct statutes.

The State further argued that the word “any” in the phrase “any other substance” breaks the link between the qualifier “administered to that person without the person’s agreement” and the nouns alcohol, narcotic, and anesthetic. 

Per contra, the appellant argued that ‘mentally incapacitated’ means that a person under the influence of alcohol, administered to that person without the person’s agreement, lacks the judgment to give a reasoned consent to sexual contact or sexual penetration.

Observations

The Court’s analysis centered on the principles vis-à-vis interpretation of statutes. The Court observed that the issue regarding interpretation of Minn. Stat. Section 609.341, sub-division  7 (2020) has arisen only because of the District Court’s instruction to the jury to interpret ‘mentally incapacitated’. The Court stated that, “Although district courts enjoy “considerable latitude in selecting jury instructions,” the instructions “must fairly and adequately explain the law of the case and not materially misstate the law”.

It was observed that the purposes of statutory interpretation is to “ascertain and effectuate the intention of the legislature” and to reflect a structural understanding that legislators are the elected representatives of the people and legislative bodies are institutionally better positioned than courts to sort out conflicting interests and information surrounding complex public policy issues.

The Court noted that the text, structure, and punctuation of the Legislature’s one-sentence definition of ‘mentally incapacitated’ supports the appellant’s interpretation, namely that-  a person is mentally incapacitated only if under the influence of alcohol administered to the person without the person’s agreement.The sentence is structured as an easily digestible series of similar nouns that describe intoxicating substances (alcohol, narcotic, anesthetic, or any other substance) followed by a qualifier (“administered to that person without the person’s agreement”) that sensibly applies to each noun”.

The Court noted that it takes modest mental energy “to process the individual nouns in the list present in the definition of mentally incapacitated, making it easy to apply the qualifier across them all”.

The Court pointed out that it was non convinced with the State’s interpretation that the phrase “administered to that person without the person’s agreement” should not be read to apply to alcohol – “Significant flaw in this argument is that the State plucks the single word “administered” out of the context of the entire phrase ‘administered to that person without the person’s agreement’”. The State erred in isolating the word ‘administered’ from the rest of the qualifier which is also demonstrated when one considers the other nouns in the series to which the qualifier applies. “Thus, the State’s narrow focus on the purported linguistic ill fit between the words alcohol and administered does not logically support the ultimate conclusion that the State asks us to reach”.

The Court stated that the appellant offered “the more reasonable explanation for the inclusion of the word “any” in “any other substance” by arguing that the Legislature intended to capture all substances, the consumption of which could deprive a person of judgment to give a reasoned consent”.

 The Court pointed out that The State simply assumes that a person may become mentally incapacitated (as defined by the Legislature in Section 609.341, sub-division 7) by voluntarily consuming alcohol. “The State’s argument that the Legislature must have intended felony classification for sexual penetration with a complainant who lacks the judgment to give a reasoned consent due to voluntary intoxication does not withstand scrutiny in light of the statutes’ structural complexity (five degrees of crime) and the differentiated punishments imposed for various types of nonconsensual sexual penetration and sexual contact”.

Conclusions

Upon detailed perusal, the Court concluded that the legislative definition of ‘mentally incapacitated’ is unambiguous and clearly means that substances (including alcohol) which cause a person to lack judgment to give a reasoned consent must be administered to the person without the person’s agreement. Therefore, Section 609.341, sub-division 7 means that, a person under the influence of alcohol is not mentally incapacitated unless the alcohol was administered to the person under its influence without that person’s agreement.

With this conclusion, the Minnesota SC also reversed the decision of the District Court which found Khalil guilty. The case was remanded to the District Court for a new trial.  [State of Minnesota v. Francios Momolu Khalil, A19-1281, decided on 24-03-2021]


Sucheta Sarkar, Editorial Assistant has reported this brief.


Image Credits: Slate.com

Case BriefsHigh Courts

Gauhati High Court: A Bench of Achintya Malla Bujor Barua and Mir Alfaz Ali, JJ., modified a conviction for murder to that of conviction for culpable homicide not amounting to murder in light of the convict’s inebriated condition at the time of the commission of offence and his subsequent conduct.

The appellant was convicted under Section 302 IPC for the murder of the deceased (his sister-in-law). He backed her with a dao from behind. It clearly came out from the record that at the time of the commission of offence, the appellant was in an intoxicated condition. Also, after the incident, he brought a vehicle and took the injured (now deceased) to hospital.

The High Court noted that after inflicting the injury, the appellant thought about providing treatment to the deceased. It was noted, “there are materials to show that the accused was in an inebriated condition and the incident took place at the spur of the moment and immediately after the incident took place, it was the accused, who himself went out to bring a vehicle and took the deceased to the hospital…” Relying on the Supreme Court decisions in Deepak v. State of U.P.,(2018) 8 SCC 228 and Kalu Ram v. State of Rajasthan, (2000) 10 SCC 324, the High Court found similarity in the present circumstances and converted the appellant’s conviction from that under Section 302 to one under Section 304 Part II IPC. Further, in view of the period of imprisonment already undergone by him, the appellant was directed to be released forthwith if not required in any other offence. [Nara Kanta Dutta v. State of Assam, 2019 SCC OnLine Gau 1671, dated 02-04-2019]