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SC Says Breath Analysis or Blood Test not Absolutely Necessary for Insurer to Reject Claim on Ground of Drunk Driving

SC Says Breath Analysis or Blood Test not Absolutely Necessary for Insurer to Reject Claim on Ground of Drunk Driving
In a recent judgement, Supreme Court has held that a breath analysis or a blood test is not mandatory as laid down in the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 for an insurer to reject claim on the ground of drunk driving. 

It was also stated that if the insurance company succeeds in establishing the fact that the driver was under the influence of alcohol during the time of the incident then it cannot be deprived of its right to exclude the policy benefit on the ground that the scientific tests for alcohol presence were not carried out.

The judgement was passed by a Bench comprising of Justices UU Lalit, Indira Banerjee and KM Joseph. 

The Bench noted the following, "...in cases, where there is no scientific material, in the form of test results available, as in the case before us, it may not disable the insurer from establishing a case for exclusion. The totality of the circumstances obtaining in a case must be considered.” 

“If the Breath Analyser or any other test is not performed for any reason, the Insurer cannot be barred from proving his case otherwise.”

However, the exact alcohol content to be present in the body had not been specified. 

Background Facts

The Court considered an appeal by an insurance company against the order of the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission. In the said order, the insurer had been held at fault for excluding the policy liability on the ground of drunken driving. The alcohol content above 30 mg/100 ml f blood, as stipulated under Section 185 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 had to be proved by the insurer as per the NCDRC. Thereafter, it had been held by the NCDRC that the insurer cannot exclude the liability without proving the said alcohol content presence through the scientific results of breath analyzer and blood tests as laid down in Sections 203 and 204 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. 

Due to this, an order of the States Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission rejecting the complaint of the insured against the repudiation of policy had been reversed by the NCDRC. 

Findings of the Supreme Court

As per the case records, it was noted by the Apex Court that Driver smelled of alcohol. The MLC report confirmed the same. Even the NDCRC had noted the same, however, it also held that it was not beyond the permissible limits. 

The requirement of Section 185 in the context of criminal offence was observed by the Court. It also said that just because the case has not been filed by the Prosecution under Section 185, it doesn’t mean that a competent Forum under the Consumer Protection Act, cannot find that the vehicle was being driven by the person under the influence of the alcohol. 

The Bench noted, “The presence of alcohol in excess of 30 mg per 100 ml. of blood is not an indispensable requirement to enable an Insurer to successfully invoke the clause. What is required to be proved is driving by a person under the influence of the alcohol.” (Paragraph 57). 

"If the Breath Analyser or any other test is not performed for any reason, the Insurer cannot be barred from proving his case otherwise.”

“It is not difficult to contemplate that the accident may take place with the driver being under the influence of alcohol and neither the Breath Test nor the laboratory test is done. A driver after the accident may run away. A test may never be performed. However, there may be evidence available which may indicate that the vehicle in question was being driven at the time of the accident by a person under the influence of alcohol. It cannot then be said that merely because there is no test performed, the Insurer would be deprived of its right to establish a case which is well within its rights under the contract"(Paragraph 58)

“The requirement under Section 185 of the Motor Vehicles Act is not to be conflated to what constitutes driving under the influence of alcohol under the policy of insurance in an Own Damage Claim. Such a claim must be considered on the basis of the nature of the accident, evidence as to drinking before or during the travel, the impact on the driver and the very case set up by the parties" (Paragraph 101, 106(G).

Facts Indicating Drunk Driving

The Medical Practitioner had also identified the smell of alcohol in the body of the Driver. The incident had taken place during the wee hours. The Driver and the Co-Passenger, both had consumed alcohol and rendered no explanation for the incident. 

Porsche, the impugned car, being capable of operating at a high speed went out of control and hit with the footpath of the road near India Gate at New Delhi. Soon after, the car overturned and caught fire. The Fire Services tried rescuing it, however, it turned out to be a total wreck. 

The Court noted that since the accident took place during the wee hours, there would not have been any traffic and something extraordinary would have caused it. 

The judgement noted, “We can take judicial notice of the fact that the roads in the Capital City, particularly in the area, where the accident occurred, are sufficiently wide and the vehicle dashing against the footpath and turning turtle and catching fire, by itself, does point to, along with the fact that the alcohol which was consumed manifests contemporaneously in the breath of the driver, to conclude that alcohol did play the role, which, unfortunately, it is capable of producing.”

The Driver pleaded guilty for rash and negligent driving under Section 279 of the Indian Penal Code.

The Court observed also observed that the view of the State Commission pertaining to the accident being caused due to drunken driving, by applying the principles of res ipsa loquitor, could be a probable view. Henceforth, the National Commission made an error in reversing it in a summary proceeding.

Case Details 

Title: IFFCO Tokio General Insurance Company Ltd v Pearl Beverages Ltd 

Coram: Justices UU Lalit, Indira Banerjee and KM Joseph 

Appearances: Shivam Singh for the appellant; Senior Advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan for the respondent. 

Citation:  LL 2021 SC 209


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