The Supreme Court on Tuesday said the event organisers were also responsible to protect the life and liberty of the victims in the 2006 Meerut fire tragedy, which claimed the lives of 65 persons and left 161 or more with burn injuries.
It directed the Chief Justice of Allahabad High Court to entrust the work of determination of compensation to a judicial officer of the rank of district judge/additional district judge at Meerut within two weeks.
A bench of Justices Hemant Gupta and V. Ramasubramanian noted that the victims or their families visited the exhibition on the invitation of the organisers and not that of the contractor. It added that the organisers cannot now take shelter on the ground that the contractor who was given work order on March 9, 2006, was an independent contractor and the victims should seek remedy from him.
“As observed earlier, the contractor has worked for the organisers and not for the victims. Hence, the organisers alone are responsible to protect the life and liberty of the victims,” said Justice Gupta, who authored the judgment on behalf of the bench.
The top court judgment came on the petition filed by the victims of the fire tragedy, which occurred on April 10, 2006 – the last day of the India Brand Consumer Show organised at Victoria Park, Meerut, by Mrinal Events and Expositions.
The bench noted that the mere fact that the cause of the accident is unknown does not prevent the plaintiff from recovering the damages, if proper inference to be drawn from the circumstances which are known is that it was caused by the negligence of the defendant.
“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 organisers that they are not liable for the acts of omission or commission on the part of the contractor was rejected by the Commission,” it said.
The bench said in respect of criminal charges, an accused can be tried by a court of law and not merely on the basis of the report of the commissioner under the Inquiry Act.
“Such report is not conclusive and an independent action has to be taken by the state or by the victims against the organisers before the competent court of law to prove the criminal offences said to be committed by certain accused,” it added in its 52-page judgment.
The bench did not accept the arguments of senior advocate Shanti Bhushan, representing the organisers, that the court commissioner has not given any conclusive finding on the cause of the fire, saying it is not relevant in determining the civil liability.
“The court commissioner has rightly fixed the liability on the organisers to the extent of 60 per cent, and on account of negligence in performing statutory duties by the officers of the state, the state has been burdened with 40% of the total liability. We do not find such distribution of liability suffers from any illegality which may warrant interference by this court.”
The bench asked the judicial officer to work exclusively on the question of determination of the compensation on a day-to-day basis. it noted that the amount paid by the state government and a sum of Rs 30 lakh deposited by the organisers has been disbursed to 52 of the victims.
“The said amount, excluding the ex-gratia payments made, be taken into consideration while determination of the amount payable by the organisers and the state,” it added.
Rejecting the proceedings conducted by the Commission under the Inquiry Act, the top court had appointed retired judge of the Supreme Court, Justice S.B. Sinha as a one-man commission to look into the incident.
The state government had earlier paid Rs 5 lakh each to the deceased, Rs 2 lakh each to the victims suffering serious injuries, and Rs 75,000 each to the victims, in view of a previous order by the apex court.
The Union government had separately paid ex-gratia compensation of Rs 1 lakh each for the deceased and Rs 50,000 each for those with serious injuries.
The top court has listed the matter after four months.