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Workmen Compensation Act: Owner cannot wash his hands off in case of non-renewal of licence by the driver for three years, SC

The SC on September 23, 2020 {BELI RAM vs RAJINDER KUMAR & ANR.} held that the driving licence having expired led to the natural finding that there was no valid driving licence on the date of the accident. It was held that the initial onus was discharged by the insurance company in view of the licence not being valid on the date of the accident. It was held that the onus, thereafter, shifted to the owner/insured to prove that he had taken sufficient steps to ensure that there was no breach of the terms and conditions of the insurance policy. It was held that since no evidence had been led in this behalf, a presumption was drawn that there was willful and conscious breach of the terms and conditions of the insurance policy.

The issue which had arisen for consideration before the SC was whether in case of a valid driving licence, if the licence has expired, the insured is absolved of its liability under Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923.

It was held by the Bench, comprising of Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Justice Aniruddha Bose & Justice Krishna Murarithat once the basic care of verifying the driving licence has to be taken by the employer, though a detailed enquiry may not be necessary, the owner of the vehicle would know the validity of the driving licence as is set out in the licence itself. It was held that it cannot be said that thereafter he can wash his hands off the responsibility of not checking up whether the driver has renewed the licence. It was held that it is not a case where a licence has not been renewed for a short period of time, say a month, as was considered in the earlier cases where the benefit was given to a third party by burdening the insurance company. It was held that the licence in the instant case, has not been renewed for a period of three years and that too in respect of commercial vehicle like a truck. It was held that the appellant showed gross negligence in verifying the same.

It was further held that in the present case the beneficiary is the driver himself who was negligent but then it is not dealing with a claim under the MV Act but under the Compensation Act, which provides for immediate succor, not really based on a fault theory with a limited compensation as specified being paid. It was held by the SC that it is, thus, in the present proceedings not required to decide the share of the burden between the appellant as the owner and the first respondent as the driver as may happen in a proceeding under the MV Act.

It was held that an expired licence having not been renewed within thirty (30) days of the expiry of the licence as provided in Sections 14 & 15 of the MV Act. It was held that if the driving licence is not renewed within thirty (30) days, the driver neither had an effective driving licence nor can he said to be duly licenced. It was held that the conclusion, thus, was that the driver, who permits his licence to expire and does not get it renewed till after the accident, cannot claim that it should be deemed that the licence is renewed retrospectively.

The SC held that it is clearly a case of lack of reasonable care to see that the employee gets his licence renewed, further, if the original licence is verified, certainly the employer would know when the licence expires. And here it was a commercial vehicle being a truck. It was held that the appellant has to, thus, bear responsibility and consequent liability of permitting the driver to drive with an expired licence over a period of three (3) years. It was held that the only thing it notes is that fortunately there has been no accident with a third party claimant but the person who has caused the sufferance and sufferer are one and the same person, i.e., the first respondent driver. The Court held that it is, however, dealing with the determination under the Compensation Act and those provisions are for the benefit of the workmen like the first respondent, even though he may be at fault, by determining a small amount payable to provide succor at the relevant stage when the larger issues could be debated in other proceedings.

In view of the aforesaid, the appeals were dismissed by the SC.

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