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Sunday 24 September 2017
News updated at 3:15 AM IST

Judicial salt on wounds

By V Raghunathan, March 14, 2017 1:14 IST

ACCIDENT CLAIMS CONUNDRUM

It’s a pity the Stella awards closed down after 2007. Had it been around, India would have qualified this week, hands down. If you are wondering what Stella Award is, well, I am not referring to the Australian award for Gospel Music, honouring women, but to the award that “honours” the memory of Stella Liebeck, who was awarded nearly $2.7 million in punitive damages and $160,000 in compensatory damages by the New Mexico District court, in a law suit against McDonald.

The 79-year-old Stella Liebeck was carrying McDonald’s coffee, at about 85oC, between her knees, sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car, and trying to open the lid off the tumbler for adding sugar and milk, when she spilled the hot coffee over thighs and genitals, causing third degree burns thus needing hospitalisation (1992).

The award had its origin in a column by Randy Cassingham, featuring “Wacky-but-true” news stories. The awards contributed much mirth between 2005 and 2007 before it was closed down as it ran out of steam. But the awards documented some hilarious law suits.

One Stella award winner was Jerry Williams of Arkansas, for example, who was awarded $ 14,500 plus medical expenses because he was bitten on the butt by his neighbour’s Beagle, which was chained, in its owner’s fenced yard, and Williams had jumped over the fence into the yard and repeatedly shot the dog with his pellet gun. The jury had been good enough to reduced Williams’s demand a tad, as it believed the beagle may have been somewhat provoked by Williams with his pellet shooting.

Well, now it has happened at our own doorstep, namely in amchi Mumbai, where the Motor Accidents Claims Tribunal held last month that a drunk motor-biker, with two on the pillion, who died on the day of Holi in a road accident against a municipal truck in 2008 was only 25% guilty and awarded him claims worth Rs 38 lakh.
The heavier truck was supposed to take 75% of the blame (the award suitably adjusted of course)!

Now our courts or tribunals are getting rather mathematically precise. Though we aren’t told if the biker was wearing a helmet, could the answer to the question have possibly swung the percentage of guilt by a couple of points as it were. Nor do we know if the biker had a valid licence and what difference that could have made to the percentage blame. We also do not know what adjustment to the percentage accounted for the fact that there were three riders on the motor cycle. And what adjustments would be made in case the biker was coming on the wrong side of the road?

Zig-zag bikers

Zig-zag bikers on our roads are a common sight. Is there a further correction to the percentage point for zig-zag driving? And if he had a cell-phone between his shoulders and ears, would that make a further difference? And if he had taken off when the signal light was still red?

And this particular accident was with a Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) truck, and according to the BMTC, the driver was well in control of the vehicle. What if the accident leading to the unfortunate death of the biker had involved another two wheeler? Or an auto-rickshaw? Or even a pedestrian? One hopes the tribunal would put out a detailed percentage chart of blame.

One had mistakenly come to believe that in our land everybody, two-wheelers and four-wheelers alike, have the licence to drive like so many beheaded chicken, without helmets, without seatbelts, talking on the cell phones or even texting, with their vehicles over-crowded or over-loaded, as if they were all out on a suicide mission. After all, don’t we routinely encounter near-accidents averted by a tiniest fraction of a second, when a lout overtakes us from the left, or goes around us from the left in order to turn right at a traffic crossing just as we are accelerating to go straight, just as the red light turns green?

But this accidents tribunal has raised the bar. Not only is it par for the course to drive drunk with two pillion riders, such drivers shall be protected by law and awarded unprecedented sums in a country where victims of murders and rapes are awarded a pittance. We are now told it is the others who must watch out for such drivers.

Well, well, we live and we learn. The tribunal has stuck true to the age-old percentage formula that we strongly believe in: what matters is the relative size of the vehicles in collision. The lion’s share of the blame must accrue to the bigger vehicle; don’t worry with trivia like who was drunk or texting on a phone when driving.

Our sympathy is only for those who die, even if they are suicidal idiots and it is their kin who deserve to get rich by Rs 38 lakh for their loved ones driving a motor cycle drunk on Holi, with two riders behind, rushing to meet their maker successfully. Never mind if the truck driver involved and his family have to suffer a life time of collateral consequences. Now you know why we would have qualified for our very own Stella award!

Our roads and streets are full of manhole covers that dip or rise a good nine inches above the street level. We have so-called speed breakers that double as bone breakers, without even markers – for day or dark hours. We have encounter enormous craters or dug-up roads aplenty any without any warning, fair or foul.

We negotiate assorted animals or even people coming on the wrong direction even on our highways or one-way streets. All of them may cause deaths. Are we to understand that from now on, it shall not only be our lot to learn to live with them all, but also be prepared to pay heavily if a drunken fool compounds the situation by insisting on driving under your wheels.

(The writer is an academic and author)

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