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Case Comment: Rajasthan v. Mst.Vidhyawati -1962 AIR 933

Facts And Judicial History
Appellant: The State of Rajasthan v/s Respondent: Mst. Vidhyawati and Another
Lokumal was a temporary employee of the State of Rajasthan working in the capacity of a motor driver on probation. He was employed as a driver of a Government Jeep car registered as No. RUM 49 under the collector of Udaipur. This car was sent to a workshop for necessary repair work.

When Lokumal was driving the car back along the public road after the repairs were finished, he knocked down Jagdishlal who was walking along the public road. The accident resulted in multiple injuries including fractures in the skull and the backbone. He eventually succumbed to death three days later owing to the severity of the injuries.

The plaintiffs, Vidhyawati (Jagdishlal's widow) and his three year old daughter filed a case against Lokumal and the State of Rajasthan claiming a compensation of Rupees twenty five thousand from both the defendants. This suit was contested by The State of Rajasthan i.e. defendant 1 while Lokumal i.e. defendant 2 remained ex parte. The suit in question had been contested by the appellant in the Honourable Supreme Court of India claiming that the state was not liable for the tortious act of its employee.

After discussing the evidence thoroughly, the Trial Court decreed the suit against the first defendant ex parte and dismissed it without the costs of the against the defendant. After the plaintiffs appealed, the High Court of Rajasthan allowed the appeal and decreed the suit against the second defendant also, with costs in both the courts.

The State of Rajasthan applied for and obtained the necessary certificate "that the case fulfills the requirements of Art. 133(1)(c) of the Constitution of India". The High Court rightly observed that an important point of law of general public importance, namely, the extent of the liability of the State, in tort, was involved.

But in view of the fact that both the Courts below have agreed in finding that the first defendant was rash and negligent in driving the jeep car, resulting in the accident and the ultimate death of Jagdishlal, it is no more necessary to advert to all the questions raised by way of answer to the suit, except the one on which the appeal has been pressed before us.

  1. Whether the state will be liable in a similar situation akin to the state of Rajasthan before the commencement of Constitution, Art. 300.
  2. Whether the rash and negligent driving of the Jeep car, which led to the commencement of the suit was being maintained "in exercise of sovereign power" or as a commercial activity of the State.

Rules Applicable:
  1. Article 133(1), Constitution of India, 1950
  2. Article 294, Constitution of India, 1950
  3. Article 295 Constitution of India, 1950
  4. Article 300 Constitution of India, 1950
  5. Section 2(1), Crown Proceedings Act, 1947
In the case at hand, the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India decided to hear this case in the appeal, in furtherance of the certificate given by the Hon'ble Rajasthan High Court under Article 133, as the question of interpretation of Article 300 was involved, which was a substantial matter of law. The Supreme court recognised that the government could be sued. The court had recognised the right of a government servant to sue the Government for recovery of arrears in salary in the case of State of Bihar v. Abdul Majid[1].

It then examined the state's liability under the Government of India Act, 1935, and other statutes, concluding that the state's liability post-independence is identical to that of the East India Company, as determined in Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. v. The Secretary of State for India.[2] The issue that arose was the extent of the government's vicarious liability for the tortuous behaviour of its employees while on the job.

Generally speaking, the basic rule of common law providing sovereign immunity is that the state cannot be held liable for the tortious behaviour of its workers while they are engaged in official government business. Since the state model has evolved and a welfare state has been established in our constitution, the state's roles are no longer restricted to maintaining law and order but now involve a wide range of activities including business, public transportation, and state commerce to name a few examples.

The ramifications of these operations are numerous, and it is difficult to offer adequate security for all of these types of governmental actions. Consequently, understanding the distinction between the state's sovereign and non-sovereign functions is crucial in the context of the current circumstances. Only acts that are within the scope of the state's sovereign obligations are eligible for immunity on the part of the state.

The decision of the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the High Court. The Supreme Court ruled that the state must bear the same level of responsibility as private businesses for the actions of its workers. There is no longer any use for the notion of royal immunity, as well as the norm that a king can do no wrong.

In the Common Law countries, such unrestricted immunity is no longer granted under the Crown Proceedings Act. Given that our constitution envisions a Republican form of government, as well as one of its goals being the establishment of a Socialistic State with a diverse range of industrial and other activities, and with a large army of servants under its command, there is no justification, either in principle or in the public interest, for the State not to be held vicariously responsible for the tortious act of one of its servants.

In deciding the case at hand, much reliance was placed on the case of Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company[3]. In that case, the plaintiff filed an action against the defendant under Section 55 of Act IX of 1850 in order to recover from the defendant Rs 350, which represented the damages sustained as a result of injuries caused to a plaintiff's horse by the negligence of certain Company servants in the course of their employment. Sir Barnes Peacock, who found the Company liable, stated the following:

"There is great and clear distinction between acts done in the exercise of what are usually termed as sovereign powers, and acts done in the conduct of undertaking which might be carried on by private individuals without having such power delegated to them´┐Ż. When an act is done or contract is entered into, in the exercise of powers usually called sovereign powers, by which we mean powers which cannot be lawfully exercised except by a sovereign, or a private individual delegated by a sovereign to exercise them, no action will lie."[4]

The Court has purposefully deviated from the Common Law rule that a public worker may not bring a lawsuit against the government. As a result, it would not be proper for the State to continue to invoke the defence of "sovereign authority" or "sovereign immunity" in order to escape its obligation in tort under these situations.

The concepts of common law have been introduced into our nation in order to further the development of tort law. Upon the promulgation of the Constitution, it becomes the supreme law of the nation, and the Constitution does not recognise any such immunity, but rather allows for the revocation of such immunity. [5]

Furthermore, the article itself provides for the power of Parliament or the Legislature of a state to establish legislation in this area if it deems it necessary and appropriate under the circumstances. However, in its capacity, the legislature has refrained from exercising its authority and passing legislation relevant to the immunity of the government for the actions of its officials or workers. Consequently, as long as no opposite purpose has been declared by the Legislature, it must be presumed that the law remains as it has been since the days of the East India Company and that no change will be made.

The Supreme Court of India, in State of Rajasthan v. Vidhyawati, reviewed the legality that existed prior to and following the formation of the State of Rajasthan, the legal position that existed under Article 300 of the Constitution, and the facts and circumstances that led to the formation of the State of Rajasthan, among other things.

The driver's actions were not taken in the course of carrying out a legitimate sovereign role. The hire of a driver for a jeep car for the use of a civil servant, according to the Court, was an activity that had no connection with the sovereign authority of the state in any way whatsoever. In this instance, the court rejected the state's claim of immunity and determined that the state was accountable for the tortious behaviour of the driver in the same way as any other employer would be.

The Court has rendered an excellent decision in this case, which will serve as a powerful precedent for many more situations that may arise in the future involving the vicarious liability of the state for the activities of its employees.

  1. State of Bihar v. Abdul Majid, 1954 AIR 245
  2. Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. v. The Secretary of State for India (1868-69) 5 Bom. H. C. R.
  3. Supra Note 2
  4. Ibid.
  5. Article 300, Constitution of India, 1950

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