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The problem with vehicle insurance laws

January 20, 2010 11:00 IST

If the lawmakers periodically review old laws, the court's burden would be lighter, says M J Antony.

The rate of road accidents in India is so high that the chances of getting run over by a motor vehicle are higher than those of winning a bet at the club. No wonder, then, that the motor accident claims tribunals are as crowded as crossroads in a city.

The Motor Vehicles Act of 1988 has thrown up several problems over the years and they have reached a dead end. Therefore, the Supreme Court decided, a few days ago, to sort out nearly 20 issues that were more common.

Some of the questions that are on the court's list for immediate attention are: The liability of insurance companies when the driver of the vehicle that was involved in an accident had no valid licence at the time of the mishap; passengers injured while travelling in a goods vehicle; claims of guests in a passenger car; overloading of vehicles and bouncing of cheques paid as compensation. Dishonour of cheques is so common that this would be the first issue to be taken up.

Assessment of damages to compensate the dependents is beset with difficulties because the exercise involves consideration of several imponderables.

These may include the life expectancy of the victim, his earning capacity and the number of years he would work; the amount he would have contributed to his dependents; the chances that the deceased may not have lived long or the dependents may not have lived up to the estimated life expectancy; the chances that the deceased might have got a better job or lost his job. All these have to be weighed by the tribunal before awarding the compensation.

However, there are several other problems raised by the Motor Vehicles Act itself. There is a large set of cases dealing with Section 149. Insurance companies have been asked by tribunals and courts to compensate third parties who are, in fact, unauthorised, gratuitous passengers travelling in the vehicle involved.

The judgments in these cases have yielded varied results. Insurance companies have, therefore, taken the issue to the Supreme Court for the final word.

Another batch of appeals moved by insurance companies seeks a definitive judgment on Sections 146, 147, 149 and 166. These provisions deal with overloading of bus and rash and negligent driving; violation of the terms and conditions of the insurance policy; whether the insurance company is liable to pay compensation to representatives of the injured and dead persons in a public transport vehicle which was overloaded.

The next batch of insurers' appeals insists that they are not liable to pay compensation when the driver of the offending vehicle had no valid and effective licence or carried a fake one.

Sometimes, the owner is not aware of the expiry of the licence or is not competent to decide whether the licence was genuine. If the insurance company does not pay, the owner has to pay the hefty compensation from his resources.

When the cheque for payment of premium is dishonoured and the accident happens during the disputed period, will the insurance company be liable in view of the provisions Section 146 of the Motor Vehicles Act and Section 64VB of the Insurance Act? This is also a grave question raised by the insurance companies.

The problem haunting accident cases in the context of the second schedule of the Motor Vehicles Act was crying for an answer for nearly two decades. The formula laid down in the schedule has been ridiculed by the Supreme Court in several cases, starting from UP State Road Transport Corporation vs Trilok Chandra case.

The figures do not add up. The compensation arrived at does not take into account inflation. On the other hand, another set of judgments - like that in Kaushanuma vs New India Assurance case - praised the formula and remarked that it was a "safer guide than any other method". Now the court has to say whether the method should be followed or not by the tribunals.

If a person travelling in a private car dies in the accident, will the insurance company be liable to pay compensation? This is a common question on which an authoritative pronouncement is required.

In these days of terrorism and armed robbery, a legal dilemma has arisen about the murder of the driver and abandonment of the vehicle. Some courts have held that it would be an "accident" and, therefore, the insurer would be liable. Some others do not think so.

There are already several questions referred by smaller benches to larger benches waiting for hearing. Can the tribunal ask the insurer to pay the dependents even when it is not liable and recover the amount from the owner?

The courts have given different answers. Such questions also will be considered by the court next month onwards. How many more questions will be gathered on the way is a moot point. If the lawmakers had taken periodic looks at the law, the burden of the courts would have been lighter. But such is not the practice.

M J Antony
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