Liability of Insurance Company if vehicle is driven by unlicensed person

Compensation to victim of motor accident and liability of Insurance:

Facts and questions of law:

Vehicles insured with the petitioners were involved in accidents resulting in filing of claim applications by the respective legal representatives of the deceased(s) or the injured person(s), as the case may be.

Defences raised by the Petitioner company in the claim petitions purported to be in terms of Section 149(2)(a)(ii) of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 (hereinafter referred to as ‘the Act’) were :

(a) driving licence produced by the driver or owner of the vehicle was a fake one;

(b) driver did not have any licence whatsoever;

(c) licence, although was granted to the concerned driver but on expiry thereof, the same had not been renewed;

(d) licence granted to the drivers being for one class or description of vehicle but the vehicle involved in the accident was of different class or description; and

(e) the vehicle in question was driven by a person having a learner’s licence.

Conclusions of Supreme Court:

(i) Chapter XI of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 providing compulsory insurance of vehicles against third party risks is a social welfare legislation to extend relief by compensation to victims of accidents caused by use of motor vehicles. The provisions of compulsory insurance coverage of all vehicles are with this paramount object and the provisions of the Act have to be so interpreted as to effectuate the said object.

(ii) Insurer is entitled to raise a defence in a claim petition filed under Section 163 A or Section 166 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 inter alia in terms of Section 149(2)(a)(ii) of the said Act.

(iii) The breach of policy condition e.g., disqualification of driver or invalid driving licence of the driver, as contained in sub-section (2)(a)(ii) of section 149, have to be proved to have been committed by the insured for avoiding liability by the insurer. Mere absence, fake or invalid driving licence or disqualification of the driver for driving at the relevant time, are not in themselves defences available to the insurer against either the insured or the third parties. To avoid its liability towards insured, the insurer has to prove that the insured was guilty of negligence and failed to exercise reasonable care in the matter of fulfilling the condition of the policy regarding use of vehicles by duly licensed driver or one who was not disqualified to drive at the relevant time.

(iv) The insurance companies are, however, with a view to avoid their liability must not only establish the available defence(s) raised in the said proceedings but must also establish ‘breach’ on the part of the owner of the vehicle; the burden of proof wherefor would be on them.

(v) The court cannot lay down any criteria as to how said burden would be discharged, inasmuch as the same would depend upon the facts and circumstance of each case.

(vi) Even where the insurer is able to prove breach on the part of the insured concerning the policy condition regarding holding of a valid licence by the driver or his qualification to drive during the relevant period, the insurer would not be allowed to avoid its liability towards insured unless the said breach or breaches on the condition of driving licence is/ are so fundamental as are found to have contributed to the cause of the accident. The Tribunals in interpreting the policy conditions would apply “the rule of main purpose” and the concept of “fundamental breach” to allow defences available to the insured under section 149(2) of the Act.

(vii) The question as to whether the owner has taken reasonable care to find out as to whether the driving licence produced by the driver, (a fake one or otherwise), does not fulfil the requirements of law or not will have to be determined in each case.

(viii) If a vehicle at the time of accident was driven by a person having a learner’s licence, the insurance companies would be liable to satisfy the decree.

(ix) The claims tribunal constituted under Section 165 read with Section 168 is empowered to adjudicate all claims in respect of the accidents involving death or of bodily injury or damage to property of third party arising in use of motor vehicle. The said power of the tribunal is not restricted to decide the claims inter se between claimant or claimants on one side and insured, insurer and driver on the other. In the course of adjudicating the claim for compensation and to decide the availability of defence or defences to the insurer, the Tribunal has necessarily the power and jurisdiction to decide disputes inter se between insurer and the insured. The decision rendered on the claims and disputes inter se between the insurer and insured in the course of adjudication of claim for compensation by the claimants and the award made thereon is enforceable and executable in the same manner as provided in Section 174 of the Act for enforcement and execution of the award in favour of the claimants.

(x) Where on adjudication of the claim under the Act the tribunal arrives at a conclusion that the insurer has satisfactorily proved its defence in accordance with the provisions of section 149(2) read with sub-section (7), as interpreted by this Court above, the Tribunal can direct that the insurer is liable to be reimbursed by the insured for the compensation and other amounts which it has been compelled to pay to the third party under the award of the tribunal. Such determination of claim by the Tribunal will be enforceable and the money found due to the insurer from the insured will be recoverable on a certificate issued by the tribunal to the Collector in the same manner under Section 174 of the Act as arrears of land revenue. The certificate will be issued for the recovery as arrears of land revenue only if, as required by sub-section (3) of Section 168 of the Act the insured fails to deposit the amount awarded in favour of the insurer within thirty days from the date of announcement of the award by the tribunal.

(xi) The provisions contained in sub-section (4) with proviso thereunder and sub-section (5) which are intended to cover specified contingencies mentioned therein to enable the insurer to recover amount paid under the contract of insurance on behalf of the insured can be taken recourse of by the Tribunal and be extended to claims and defences of insurer against insured by relegating them to the remedy before regular court in cases where on given facts and circumstances adjudication of their claims inter se might delay the adjudication of the claims of the victims.

[Source: National Insurance Co. Ltd. Vs. Swarn Singh, 1 (2004) 3 SCC 29
Followed in 2017:

In the present case, the owner of the vehicle (respondent No.1) had produced the insurance certificate indicating that vehicle No. DIL- 5955 was comprehensively insured by the respondent No.2 (Insurance Company) for unlimited liability. Applying the dictum in the case of National Insurance Company Ltd. (supra), to subserve the ends of justice, the insurer (respondent No.2) shall pay the claim amount awarded by the Tribunal to the appellants in the first instance, with liberty to recover the same from the owner of the vehicle (respondent No.1) in accordance with law.

[Source: Pappuu  vs Vinod Kumar Lamba decided by SC on 19 January, 2018]
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