The State Of Rajasthan v. Ms. Vidhyawati & another (1962 AIR 933)

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Bench

  1. Justice Bhuvneshwar Sinha
  2. Justice J.L. Kapur
  3. Justice M. Hidayatullah
  4. Justice J.C. Shah
  5. Justice J.R. Mudholkar

Parties

Petitioner- The State of Rajasthan

Respondent- Mst. Vidhyawati and Another

Introduction

“Law is an experience developed by reason and applied continually to further experience.”

Roscoe Pound

In India, the antecedent law was based on feudal notions that “the king can do no wrong and he cannot be sued in his own court”. This is referred to as the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which was borrowed from the British Jurisprudence. This doctrine is obsolete and irrational in today’s scenario, where the state can claim immunity for its tortious acts and the aggrieved party can be denied compensation. 

But now, India has established a Republican form of Government to establish a socialist State and deny with the principle that “the State should not be held vicariously liable for the tortious acts of its servant”. It is not that everything which a State does is considered a part of its sovereign powers. There is a huge difference between the acts done in the exercise of sovereign powers and commercial functions, carried on by private individuals. 

This[1] case was one of the landmark judgments in which the Supreme Court gave judgment on the issue of liability of the State for the acts of government servants. In this case, the wife of a person who died in an accident caused by the negligence of a driver of a Government servant claimed damages for the loss of her husband. 

Background of the Case

Defendant no. 1, Lokumal was an employee of the State of Rajasthan. In February 1952, he was employed as the driver of a Government jeep car of the Collector of Udaipur. The jeep car was given for repairs at a workshop. 

On February 11, 1952, after the completion of the repair work, when Lokumal was driving back to the Collector’s bungalow, he was driving rashly and negligently and while driving along the public road, he knocked down Jagdish Lal who was walking along the public road. In the accident, Jagdish Lal suffered multiple injuries, including fractures of the skull and backbone, who succumbed three days later, in the hospital where he was rushed for treatment. The plaintiffs, Jagdish Lal’s widow, Vidhyawati, and minor daughter (three years old) with the help of her mother sued Lokumal (respondent no.1) and the State of Rajasthan (respondent no.2) for damages for the tort. The appellants claimed a compensation of Rs. 25,000 from the defendants. 

The Trial Court, after considering the evidence, decreed the first defendant as ex-parte and dismissed the suit against the second defendant without costs. Aggrieved by the decision of the Trial Court, the appellants filed an appeal in the Rajasthan High Court. The High Court applied for and obtained the necessary certificate that the case fulfills the requirements of Article 133 (1) of the Constitution of India. The Court disagreed with the Trial Court on the part of the legal issue and clarified that “they were not considering the case of drivers employed by the State for driving vehicles for military or public service”. Thus, the High Court judgment dated March 22, 1957, passed by Justice Wanchoo and Justice D.S. Dave allowed the appeal and granted the decree against the second defendant, that is, the State of Rajasthan for a sum of Rs. 15,000. 

Facts of the Case

The instant case is an appeal filed by the State of Rajasthan. Aggrieved by the decision of the High Court of Rajasthan, respondent no.2, that is, the State of Rajasthan filed an appeal in the Hon’ble Supreme Court on the ground that they were not liable for the tortious acts of their employees, as in this case, the rash and negligent driving by Lokumal resulted in the death of Jagdish Lal. 

Issues of the Case

The following two issues are involved in this case:

  • Whether the State of Rajasthan, before the commencement of Article 300 of the Constitution of India, 1950 be liable in a similar situation?
  • Whether the rash and negligent driving of the jeep car by the driver, which was the reason for the claim in the suit, was maintained under the sovereign power and not as a part of the commercial activity of the State?

Provisions and Principles Involved

  1. Article 133 (1) of the Constitution of India, 1950– This Article highlights the difference between appellate and original jurisdiction of the High Court and includes all judgements, decrees, and orders passed in exercise of appellate or original jurisdiction. 
  2. Article 294 of the Constitution of India, 1950– This Article poses a liability on the State or Union Government out of any contract or otherwise. 
  3. Article 295 of the Constitution of India, 1950
  4. Article 300 (1) of the Constitution of India, 1950– This Article provides that the liability of Union or State Government shall be the same as that of Dominion of India.
  5. Article 300 (1) of the Constitution of India, 1950– According to this Article, the Government of India shall sue or be sued by the name of State or Legislature of a State.
  6. Section 2 (1) of the Crown Proceedings Act, 1947
  7. Article 300 (1) of the Constitution of India, 1950– This doctrine of tort law stands on the principle of “let the master answer”. This means that the master is responsible for all the wrongful acts of his servant and a principal for his agent, in the course of employment. 
  8. The doctrine of Sovereign Immunity– As per this doctrine, the sovereign or state cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune or protected from any civil or criminal prosecution. 
  9. Negligence– It is the failure to use ordinary care while omission or commission of an act. 

Judgment of the Case

The five-judge bench declared the judgment on February 2, 1962. The Apex Court confirmed the decision of the High Court of Rajasthan and accredited the views expressed by it. 

On the issue of Article 300 of the Constitution of India, the Apex Court expressed that the initial part of the said Article deals with the classification of a suit, and the latter part deals with the extent of liability in ‘like cases’. This refers to the legal position of the provisions before the enactment of the Constitution of India. The Court approved the case of Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. v. The Secretary of State of India[2] and held that the secretary of the State would be liable for the negligence of its employees in the same manner in which an ordinary employer would have been held liable. The Apex Court made a distinction between the sovereign and non-sovereign function and further observed that the old feudalistic notion of justice that the king was incapable of doing wrong was an immunity of crown in the United Kingdom, however, it never operated in India. 

On the issue of liability of the State, the Court said that before the enforcement of State of Rajasthan, there was a Rajasthan Union as a corresponding state and the State has failed to show that Rajasthan Union would have been protected from such liability in a similar case. The court further added that a welfare state has been established by the Constitution, whose function is not limited to maintaining law and order, so it would not be considerate to claim immunity for tortious acts of its employees. Thus, on the issue of State, the court held that State would be vicariously liable for the tortious act committed by its employees in the course of employment though not in connection with sovereign powers of the State, in a similar way as any other employer. 

The Apex Court observed that the driver, in the instant case, while taking back the jeep from the workshop, could not be considered to be involved in a sovereign function. Also, the employment of the driver for the official use of the jeep by a civil servant could not be considered sovereign. Therefore, the Court expressed concern towards the need to limit the scope of sovereign immunity because of multiple activities of the government which are not considered as a sovereign function. 

After considering the facts and provisions, the Supreme Court concluded that there was no merit in the appeal and accordingly dismissed the appeal. 

 Referred Cases

  1. Kasturi Lal Ralia Ram Jain v. State of Uttar Pradesh[3]In this case, a certain amount of gold and silver was confiscated by the police authorities from a man on suspicion that it was stolen property. The property was kept in the custody of a Head Constable and he misappropriated the court. A suit for damages was filed by the man against the State for his loss of property. This suit involved a question of liability of the State before the Hon’ble Supreme Court. The Apex Court held that the state was not liable for the misappropriation done by the police authorities as they were exercising sovereign functions.  In this case, Justice Gajendragadkar observed that “If a tortious act is committed by a public servant and it arises claim for damages, then there should be a question as to ‘Was the tortious act committed by the public servant in discharge of statutory functions or there was a delegation of sovereign powers to the public servant?’ If the answer is in the affirmative, the action for damages for loss caused by such an act shall not lie. On the other hand, if the tortious act has been committed by a public servant in discharging the duties assigned to him, and not by delegation, action for damages shall lie.” 
  1. Smt. Basava Kom Dyamogonda Patil v. State of Mysore[4]In this case, the Supreme Court held that when there is no prima facie defence that the State has taken due care and caution to protect the property, the courts can order the State to pay the value of the property to the owner of that property. The Court further observed that the seizure of a property by the police amounts to an entrustment that the property should be restored to the original owner. 

Analysis of the Judgement

The judgment pronounced in the case State of Rajasthan v. Vidhyawati is a significant decision that has formed a strong precedent for other similar cases on the issue of vicarious liability of the state for the acts of government servants. The Court gave an appreciable decision and clarified that the post-constitutional era is not a police state. It is not confined to be maintained by law and order. It is a welfare state and all its functions cannot be done in exercise of the sovereign power by the state. The concept of sovereign immunity has changed with time. The old concept has perished and what survives is the sovereignty in the hands of the people. The evolution of this doctrine can be seen from the judgment in Satyawati v. Union of India[5]. In this case, the Court rejected the argument raised in this case which stated that the function of the Union of India was to keep the army properly and the hockey team was carried by the Air Force vehicle for physical exercise of the personnel and so the Government of India was not liable. The Court further held that carrying a hockey team to play a match could not be termed as a sovereign function and held the Union of India liable for damages. 

The Court, by holding that it is too much for a State to be immune from the tortious acts of its employees in the course of employment, has limited the scope of sovereign immunity. There is no doubt that the concept of State has also evolved with time and this has been possible only with the contribution of the judiciary and the legislature. This judgment has, thus, proved that now the sovereign power vests in the people and the government shall be responsible for the decisions made contrary to the provisions of the Constitution of India. The judgment has also expressed concern over limiting the scope of sovereign immunity and also that India needs an Act or legislation which can clarify the position of the state liability in a welfare state. 

“National sovereignty is an obligation as well as an entitlement. A government that will not perform its role forfeits the right of a government”

Richard Parle

[1] The State of Rajasthan v. Ms. Vidhyawati & another, 1962 AIR 933.

[2] (1868-69) 5 Bom. H.C.R. 1.

[3] 1965 AIR 1039.

[4] 1971 CriLJ 566.

[5] AIR 1957 Delhi 98.

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