Mansimran Kaur

New Delhi, April 29, 2022: While considering an accident case where the airbags of a car did not deploy in a collision, the Supreme Court has opined that the purchase decision of the respondent-complainant was largely made on the basis of representation of the safety features of the vehicle but the safety description of the goods fell short of its expected quality. 

The Division Bench of Justice Vineet Saran and Justice Aniruddha Bose dismissed the appeal filed by the appellants assailing the findings of the State and National Consumer forum whereby the claim of the claimant against the appellants was upheld and the appellants were held accountable for selling a defective vehicle to the complainant. It was observed that the manufacturer shall be strictly and absolutely liable in case of defective safety measures in a vehicle and the compensation in the form of punitive damages ought to have a deterrent effect. 

The present appeal was preferred in pursuance of a complaint made by the respondent concerning defect in a vehicle particularly with respect to its safety features. Brief facts of the case were that the purchase of the vehicle by the respondent was made on August 21, 2015. Unfortunately, it met with an accident on Delhi- Panipat highway on November 16, 2017 resulting in substantial damage to its RH front pillar, RH front roof, side body panels, front RH door panels and LH front wheel suspension. At the time of the accident, the mother and daughter of the complainant were in the car. The airbags of the vehicle did not deploy at the time of collision and due to the same complainant suffered head, chest and dental injuries. 

Consequently, the complainant raised a claim and the same was accepted by the Delhi State Consumer Redressal Commission. The prime contention of the complainant was that he purchased the said model because of its safety measures including air bags, however the same did not deploy causing severe injuries to the complainant. 

The same was assailed by way of appeal, before the National Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission. The National Commission dismissed the appeal sustaining the compensation, which was passed on January 5, 2021. It was this order that was challenged before the present Court in the form of appeal. 

The Counsel for the appellant contended that the order of replacement ought not to have been passed by the State Commission as there was no defect in the model. The Counsel went into the technicalities to explain as to why the airbags were not deployed at the time of collision. It was submitted that the vehicle is designed to deploy the front airbags only when an impact is sufficiently severe and when the impact angle is less than 30 degrees from the forward longitudinal axis of the vehicle. The contention with respect to limitation was also put forth by the appellant submitting that the limitation period shall be computed from the date of purchase of vehicle and not from the date of the accident. 

The Court observed that the respondent purchased the vehicle bearing in mind the safety features of the vehicle projected by the manufacturer. In such situations, the limitation period shall be computed from the day the defect comes to the surface and in the instant case it was discovered at the time of accident. The National Commission’s view which based on the principle incorporated in Section 16 of the Sales of Goods Act,  1930 was also upheld by this Court. 

Thereafter the Court dealt with the issue pertaining to defects in the product sold to the respondent.  The Court took into consideration the findings of the Forums.  The State forum applied the principle of Res Ipsa Loquitur to hold the manufacturers accountable for the defect in the airbag system of the vehicle and the National forum relied on the photographs of the damaged vehicle which revealed substantial frontal damage. Thus, the Court noted that both the fora were of the view that there was no need of expert evidence in the instant case seeing the facts of the case. In view of the same, this Court refused to interfere with the finding of the National Commission and opined that in ordinary circumstances a consumer while purchasing a vehicle with airbags would assume that the same would be deployed whenever there is a collision from the front portion of the vehicle. 

However, both the fora underlined the fact that there was substantial damage to the front portion of the vehicle and the deployment of airbags at that time would have prevented the passengers from sustaining such grave injuries. It was further observed that a consumer is not meant to be an expert in physics calculating the impact of a collision on the theories based on velocity and force.

The Bench said, “The failure to provide an airbag system which would meet the safety standards as perceived by a car-buyer of reasonable prudence, in our view, should be subject to punitive damages which can have deterrent effect. And in computing such punitive damages, the capacity of the manufacturing enterprise should also be a factor.”

The appellants contended that there was no prayer in the petition for replacement of the vehicle.  The Court observed that in the instant case, the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 was applicable and Section 14 of the Act lays down the reliefs to be granted. Thus, the direction  in accordance with the statute, can be of  replacement of  the damaged goods as also punitive damages, the Court observed. 

It was further opined that the direction for replacement of the vehicle would not be treated as non-est having regard to the State Commissions Order. Also, the fact that the consumer  got the car repaired on insurance money would not impact the quantum of damages, which is partly punitive in nature in this case.

Further the Court observed that defective safety features in a vehicle have to be distinguished from a dysfunctional courtesy light. The manufacturer should be under strict and absolute liability in respect of the latter. Compensation in the form of punitive damages ought to have a deterrent effect.  Reliance was placed on judgment of this Court in M.C. Mehta and Another v. Union of India and Others wherein it was held that the larger and more prosperous the enterprise, the greater must be the amount of compensation payable by it for the harm caused on account of an accident in the carrying on of the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity by the enterprise.

Thus, considering the aforesaid observations and findings of the State and National forum, the Court observed that the if the reliefs granted in a consumer complaint fall within the ambit of statutory provision contained in sub clause (1) of Section 14 of the Act, then it would be considered well within the reach and jurisdiction of the Consumer forums to grant such reliefs, irrespective of the fact that the same was claimed or not by the claimant. The forums can mould the reliefs to impart justice, added the Bench.

The Ttop Court opined that the relief granted to the respondent was not beyond the statutory framework and it demanded no interference by this Court. Dismissing the appeal, the Bench observed that directions issued against the appellant by the State Commission and upheld by the National Commission couldnot be said to have failed the test of proportionality.

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