Act of God

As many as 35,642 cases of Indian Made Foreign Liquor of different brands got destroyed in fire on 10/04/2003.

We need not delve, for present purpose, on classification or various other jurisprudential features of ‘liability’. We are primarily concerned with question of ‘liability’ arising out of ‘negligence’. Without multiplying case law, sufficient it would be to refer to connotation of ‘negligence’ explained succinctly in State of Maharashtra v. Kanchanmala Vijaysing Shirke, (1995) 5 SCC 659: “omission to do something which a reasonable man is expected to do or a prudent man is expected to do.”

It would be apposite to take note of a few features related with ‘Act of God’. Divisional Controller, KSRTC v. Mahadeva Shetty, (2003) 7 SCC 197 explained essential features concerning ‘Act of God’ in contradistinction to an act or omission of human beings. Vohra Sadikbhai Rajakbhai v. State of Gujarat, (2016) 12 SCC 1 explained: “those acts which are occasioned by elementary forces of nature, unconnected with agency of man or other cause will come under category of ‘Act of God’.” When nothing of any external natural force had been in operation in violent or sudden manner, event of fire in question could be referable to anything but to an Act of God’ in legal parlance.

One basic factor to be noticed is, goods in question were not ordinary goods but had been containing alcohol which, by its very nature, is highly inflammable. Therefore, a particular nature of care which might be sufficient as regards ordinary goods may not be adequate or sufficient for goods in question. We find it difficult to accept, fire and resultant loss had been beyond control of human agency so as to be termed as an ‘inevitable accident’.

As noticed, fault of ‘negligence’ need not always be ‘active negligence’ or ‘gross negligence’, but it may also be ‘inadvertent negligence’ or ‘passive negligence’. It does not require much of discussion to say, goods in question, being highly inflammable, required extra and excessive care for their safe custody; and any laxity or slackness was impermissible. To put it differently, what was required for ensuring safe custody of goods in question was heightened safeguard measures with foresight.

High Court has been in error in holding, no ‘negligence’ could be imputed on M/s. McDowell & Company Limited.

Hon’ble Justice Dinesh Maheshwari, State of U.P. v. M/s. McDowell & Company Limited, [Civil Appeal No. 169-170 of 2022].