judge, hammer, auction hammer


BENCH: Justice Gurdev Singh, Justice D.K Mahajan, Justice P.C Pandit, Justice H.R Soni, Justice Bal Raj Tuli.


In law of torts, the concept of vicarious liability is quintessential in the ascertainment of tortious liability. Here, liability is imposed because of a special relationship. The term ‘Vicarious Liability’ has been derived from the Latin term ‘vice’ meaning ‘in the place of’. It originated in England and has been propounded by jurist Fredrick Pollock in the nineteenth century. Thus, it literally means ‘liability for the act of others’. It can be defined as a concept vested to impose strict liability on a person who does not have primary liability. It refers to a situation where someone is held responsible for the actions or omissions of another person. It finds its source in the principles of ‘qui facit per allium facit per se’ meaning ‘he who does an act through another, is deemed in law to do himself’ and ‘respondent superior’ meaning ‘let the superior be liable’. Principal and agent, master and servant, company and employees, firms and partners, guardian and ward, State and public servants, etcetera are the various forms of relationships which come under the purview of the principle of ‘Vicarious Liability’.


On 14th May, 1967, at about 2:30 P.M, a military truck No. SL 8085, which was driven by Sepoy Man Singh on the Mall Road in Ambala Cantt., was involved in an accident with a car, of which one of the occupants was Amrik Singh. As a result of this accident, Amrik Singh received a number of injuries and became unconscious. He was removed to the military hospital in an ambulance car. From there, he was discharged on the next day for being treated by a civil doctor. It is said that, thereafter, he remained under treatment for about two months. Subsequently, Amrik Singh filed a petition claiming compensation amounting to Rs. 50,000 against the Union of India. He also impleaded Sepoy Man Singh, but, later on, gave up his claim against him. According to Amrik Singh, the incident had taken place due to the rash and negligent driving on the part of Sepoy Man Singh.

The claim was contested by the Union of India, who denied all the allegations made against them and pleaded that there was no fault on the part of the driver Sepoy Man Singh. It was also averred that since the driver was acting in the exercise of the sovereign powers of the Union Government at the time of the accident, no action could be taken against the Government and, therefore, there was no liability of the Union of India for any compensation.


  1. Whether the accident took place due to the negligence of Sepoy Man Singh, driver of the Military Truck No. SL 8085?
  1. Whether the applicant is entitled to any compensation and if so to what amount?
  2. Whether Sepoy Man Singh, driver of the truck in question was acting in the exercise of the sovereign powers of the Union Government at the time of the accident and if so whether the Government of India is not liable for his negligence?


Justice Gurdev Singh observed that the question of law that arose for consideration of the Full Bench out of the award of the Motor Accidents Claims Tribunal, Ambala, dated 21st of February, 1968, dismissing the claim of the appellant Amrik Singh against the Union of India.

The question that survived for consideration was, whether Sepoy Man Singh was acting in exercise of the sovereign powers of the Government and, in the circumstances, the Union of India was immune from all liability for the tortious act committed by him. In the course of arguments reference was made to the Bench decision of this Court in Union of India v. Harbans Singh, and Full Bench decisions of this Court in Rup Ram Kalu Ram Aggarwal v. The Punjab State, and Union of India v. Smt. Jasso. Rup Ram’s case was distinguished on the ground that it did not relate to tort committed by a person employed in the Military Department, which the correctness of the rule laid down in the other Full Bench case (Union of India v. Smt. Jasso) was questioned by the learned counsel appearing for the Union of India. Being of the opinion that the question of law that had thus arisen be authoritatively settled Justice P.C Pandit, directed that the case be heard by a larger Bench. This was how the matter had come up before the Full Bench.

The general principles of law of torts with regard to the liability of the master for the acts of his servant were not disputed before the bench and it was conceded that had Sepoy Man Singh been at the time of the accident in the employment of a private individual and not the Union of India or the State and driving in the course of his duty, his employer would certainly be liable to compensate the appellant for the injuries sustained by him. The learned counsel appearing for the Union of India had, however, urged that since the accident took place when Sepoy Man Singh was engaged in Military duty which is a sovereign function, the Union of India is immune from all liability for his rash and negligent driving, Reliance in this connection was placed upon Supreme Court decision in Kasturi Lal Ralia Ram Jain v. State of Uttar Pradesh. AIR 1965 SC 1039. and several other authorities of various Courts, besides the Division Bench decision in Union of India v. Harbans Singh. In the latter case it was held by the court that the Union of India was not liable for rash and negligent driving of a truck of the Military Department while the driver was engaged in Military duty of supplying meals to the Military personnel on duty.

As against this, the learned counsel for the appellant had cited two Full Bench decisions of this Court. In Rup Ram v. The Punjab State, the Full Bench (G.D Khosla, C.J, S.S Dulat, and Harbans Singh, JJ.) ruled that the State is not absolutely immune from liability merely because the act complained of may have been done in the exercise of its governmental or executive powers, and what has to be seen is whether the same reasons which would have compelled a Court to fasten liability on an employer, exist or not. It was further observed in that case that should it appear that a servant employed by the State had acted for the benefit of the State and had in the process committed a tort, the State would be liable to make good the damages. In that particular case a truck belonging to the Public Works Department driven by the driver in the employment of the Department struck against a motorcycle, causing injuries to the person riding the motorcycle by rash and negligent driving. The Full Bench held that the employer of the driver of the truck, although the State, must shoulder the responsibility for his negligent act committed in the course of his employment just as the ordinary employer would do and the fact that the Public Works Department was not a commercial department in the sense that it was not concerned with making profits was too far removed from the tortious act complained of to be on any help. Later, another Full Bench (D Felshaw, Mehar Singh and A.N Grover, JJ.) of the Court in Union of India v. Smt. Jasso, was called upon to deal with the liability of a Military driver who while transporting coal to the General Headquarters at Simla in discharge of his duties, caused an accident by rash and negligent driving. The rule laid down by the earlier Full Bench in Rup Ram v. The Punjab State, was noticed, but reliance was placed upon the following observations of the Bench decision of the Rajasthan High Court in Mt. Vidhyawati v. Lokumal. AIR 1957 Raj. 306., a case that had been referred to with approval by the earlier Full Bench.

Besides relying upon the three decisions of the Court that have been referred to above the learned counsel appearing for the appellant, had cited several authorities of various other High Courts in support of his contention that the Union of India cannot escape liability for the injuries caused to the appellant by the rash and negligent driving of the truck by Sepoy Man Singh. As has been observed by their Lordships of the Supreme Court in Parkash Chandra v. State of U.P. AIR 1960 SC 195., every case was an authority on its own facts and no two cases on facts are alike. Thus, the various decisions that have been cited before them turned on their own peculiar facts and the conclusions reached in most of these cases can be justified on facts.

In view of the state of law that emerged on review of the various authorities, the legal question that has been set out in the opening part of the order has been answered in the negative. In the opinion of the Court of Law the Union of India cannot be held liable for injuries sustained by a person as a result of rash and negligent driving of an Army vehicle by a member of the Military Police, who in discharge of the duty entrusted to him was proceeding to check the military personnel on duty. In this view of the matter the appeal was dismissed with no order as to costs.
Justice D.K Mahajan entirely agreed, but suggested that necessary legislation be enacted in this behalf.

Justice P.C Pandit agreed with the order proposed that the appeal be dismissed but with no order as to costs.

Justice H.R Sodhi too agreed that the appeal be dismissed with no order as to costs.

Justice Bal Raj Tuli agreed with the order and reasoning recorded by Justice Gurdev Singh.

The Appeal was dismissed.


Thus, we can conclude that the State is not liable under any provision for the wrongful acts of its employees if it’s employee had committed an offense while discharging sovereign functions like- defense, foreign relations, etcetera. Res non potest peccare meaning ‘the king can do no wrong’ is the mother of this concept. However, the concept of the old Common Law has been changed by the Crown Proceeding Act 1947.Notwithstanding the various exceptions to the concept of ‘Vicarious Liability’, it is an important weapon for realising the principle of socialization of compensation.


Soumyadeep Dasgupta, Department of Law, University of Calcutta