Criminal Liability in Motor Vehicle Accidents

Motor vehicle accidents are considered under civil wrong since it is a wrong between private parties and is punished with compensation, but there are a few cases in which these could attract criminal liability, i.e. when there is clear and grave intention. This article talks about the various sections under Indian Penal Code that are applicable in such cases and substantiates it with excerpts from Judgements.

Motor Vehicles Accidents and Criminal Liability

This blog deals with criminal liability in motor vehicle accidents along with negligent act and proof of the negligence in criminal liability. It is of utmost importance owing to the alarming increase in accidental deaths, injuries to life, limbs, and property as an impact of modern civilization.

Negligence v/s Neglect

Negligence must be distinguished from neglect. Neglect, unlike negligence, does not indicate a specific attitude of mind but states a matter of fact, which may be the result of either intentional or negligent act. A man, who knows that the brake of his scooter is defective, neglects to set it right and knocks down a child on the road. The harm to the child is caused not by his negligence, but by his willful neglect or recklessness in not repairing the break.[1]

The principles of liability governing civil actions and criminal prosecutions based on negligence differ. Criminal Law both in England and in India recognizes a degree of negligence. The negligence which would justify conviction must be culpable or of gross degree and not negligence founded on a mere error of judgment or defect of intelligence. One of the grey areas of the law is that relating to the legal consequences of accidents and the action to be taken after a victim is injured, particularly in motor vehicle accidents.[2]

It is a basic principle of both Anglo – American and European Procedure that in Criminal Cases guilt must be established beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof in both the systems rests upon the prosecution. In the common law tradition, the jury must be persuaded of the guilt of the accused “beyond reasonable doubt[3].

Prescription of Law

The Indian Criminal System is characterized by an accelerated rate of acquittals. Besides the issues of the improper collection of evidence and a lack of witnesses for the trial, the legal system is severely crippled by the issue of the burden of proof. In line with Common Law tradition, the Indian system emphasizes the burden of proof on the prosecution. In this issue that gains prominence in the light of the disquieting situation with respect acquittals[4]. Lord Atkin observed in Andrews v. Director of Public Prosecution[5] as follows: “simple lack of care such as will constitute civil liability is not enough. For purposes of criminal law, there are degrees of negligence; and a very high degree of negligence is required to be proved before the felony is established. Probably of all the epithets that can be applied ‘reckless’ most nearly covers”.

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The degree of negligence which would justify a conviction must be something like the danger which, if one draws the accused’s attention to, the latter might exclaim: “I don’t care”. This shows indifference to consequences. It must thus be more than mere omission or neglect of duty. In criminal cases, there must be mens rea or guilty mind i.e. rashness or the guilty mind of a degree which can be described as criminal negligence. The principle of avoidance of liability, when in contributory negligence by the injured person is no defense in criminal law. Section 279 and 280 to 289, Section 304A, 336, 337, and 338 of Indian Penal code deal with the accused’s rash and negligent conduct endangering the safety of others. All these sections cover the possibility or likelihood of injury as a result of the accused’s conduct. Under all these sections, there is a rash and negligent act involved one of the ingredients of the offence and that rash or negligent driving or riding on a public road causing motor vehicle accidents is, therefore, be covered by all these sections. But section 304A, 337, and 338 are specific provisions relating to cases in which rash and negligent driving or riding result in the death of another person or in hurt or grievous hurt caused to another person.

Dalbir Singh v. State of Haryana [6]

When automobiles have become death traps any leniency shown to drivers who are found guilty of rash driving would be at the risk of further escalation of road accidents. All those who are manning the steering of automobiles, particularly professional drivers, must be kept under constant reminders of their duty to adopt the utmost care and also of the consequences befalling them in cases of dereliction. One of the most effective ways of keeping such drivers under mental vigil is to maintain a deterrent element in the sentencing sphere. Any latitude shown to them in that sphere would tempt them to make driving frivolous and a frolic. Bearing in mind the galloping trend in motor vehicle accidents in India and the devastating consequences visiting the victims and their families, criminal courts cannot treat the nature of the offense under Section 304-A IPC as attracting the benevolent provisions of Section 4 of the Probation of Offenders Act. While considering the quantum of sentence to be imposed for the offense of causing death by rash or negligent driving of automobiles, one of the prime considerations should be deterrence. A professional driver pedals the accelerator of the automobile almost throughout his working hours. He must constantly inform himself that he cannot afford to have a single moment of laxity or inattentiveness when his leg is on the pedal of a vehicle in locomotion. He cannot and should not take a chance thinking that a rash driving need not necessarily cause a motor vehicle accident; or even if an accident occurs it need not necessarily result in the death of any human being, or even if such death ensues he might not be convicted of the offense; and lastly, that even if he is convicted he would be dealt with leniently by the court. He must always keep in his mind the fear psyche that if he is convicted of the offense for causing the death of a human being due to his callous driving of the vehicle he cannot escape from a jail sentence. This is the role which the courts can play, particularly at the level of trial courts, for lessening the high rate of motor vehicle accidents due to callous driving of automobiles.”

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Ratan Singh v. State of Punjab [7]

Nevertheless, sentencing must have a policy of correction. This driver, if he has to become a good driver, must have a better training in traffic laws and moral responsibility, with special reference to the potential injury to human life and limb. Punishment in this area must, therefore, be accompanied by these components. The State, we hope, will attach a course for better driving together with a livelier sense of responsibility, when the punishment is for driving offences. Maybe, the State may consider, in case of men with poor families, occasional parole and reformatory courses on appropriate application, without the rigor of the old rules which are subject to Government discretion.”

In Siriya v. State of M.P.[8] it has been held as follows:-

Protection of society and stamping out criminal proclivity must be the object of law which must be achieved by imposing an appropriate sentence. Therefore, the law as a cornerstone of the edifice of “order” should meet the challenges confronting the society. Friedman in his Law in Changing Society stated that: “State of criminal law continues to be—as it should be—a decisive reflection of social consciousness of society”. Therefore, in operating the sentencing system, the law should adopt the corrective machinery or deterrence based on factual matrix. By deft modulation, the sentencing process is stern where it should be, and tempered with mercy where it warrants to be.” Negligence is a basic element in a claim for compensation for death, bodily injury or damage to property of a third party caused by accident arising out of use of a motor vehicle, but whereas death or bodily injury caused by rash or negligent driving, and rash and negligent driving itself, are crimes defined and made punishable under the Indian Penal Code, 1860, causing damage to property by some negligent act has not been included in the catena of offences defined and described under the said penal code. The following are the offences cognizable under the Indian Penal Code as committed by or in relation to the use of Motor Vehicle.

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Section 279 I.P.C. states that whoever drives any vehicle or rides on any public way in manner so rash and negligent as to endanger human life or to be likely to cause hurt or injury to any other person shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months or with fine which may extend to one thousand rupees or with both.

Section 304A I.P.C. deals with causing death by negligence, and states that whoever causes the death of any person by doing any rash or negligent act not.

[1] K.D.Gaur, “Criminal Law: Cases and Materials”,(1999) p.29.

[2] P.M.Bakshi, Accident Victims and the Criminal Law, 3 JILI (1989) 566.

[3] P.M.Bakshi, Continental System of Criminal Justice, 36 JILI 1994 p. 425.

[4] Priyadarhini Narayana, The Burden of Proof on the Prosecution: An Excuse for Acquittal, 2001CILQ Vol. XIV 548.

[5]Andrews v. Director of Public Prosecution, (1937), 2 All E.R. 552 .

[6] (2000) 5 SCC 82

[7] (1979) 4 SCC719

[8] (2008) 8 SCC 72