Case Study: Nanjundappa & Anr v. State of Karnataka

By Mohammad Adil Ansari 9 Minutes Read

“Doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur stricto sensu does not apply to a criminal case”

“After proving negligence, the prosecution must prove direct nexus between negligence of the accused and the death of the victim to establish the guilt of the accused”

Citation: Criminal Appeal No. 900 of 2017

Date of Judgement: 17 May, 2022

Author: Justice Krishna Murari

Bench: Chief Justice N.V. Ramana, Justice Krishna Murari, Justice Hima Kohli

Background Facts

The victim (hereinafter referred to as V) Mr. Uday Shankar was watching TV on 21/11/2003. He heard a sudden sound coming from the TV. Noticing it, he got up to separate the dish wire, the TV connection wire and the Telephone wire which were entwined together. At this point, he felt an electric shock and his right hand was burnt, consequently leading to his death. Upon enquiry it was found that A2 (Appellant No. 2), who was a daily wage worker working under the supervision of A1 (Appellant 1), an employee in the telephone department had worked on the DP pole and pulled the telephone wire. The telephone wire got detached and fell on the 11 KV Power line and electricity passed into the telephone wire. At this time, V heard the sound in his TV and went to separate telephone wire and cable wire, which led to a short circuit and thereby, the right hand of V was burnt and he consequently died of the electrocution he suffered.

It was contested that the said incident happened and V died because of the negligence on part of A1 and A2. In their defence both A1 and A2 said that the said death has not been because of touching the Telephone line. Both A1 and A2 were convicted by the Trial Court under Section 304A read with Section 34 of the Indian Penal Code relying on circumstantial evidence. A sentence for 1 year and 3 months imprisonment as well as penalty was imposed. Karnataka High Court and the First Appellate Court, both confirmed the judgment of the Trial Court.

Judgement

The Supreme Court set aside the conviction and sentence of the appellants and acquitted them. It held that there was no sufficient material to convict them under Section 304A read with Section 34 of the IPC. All the evidence that was adduced was in the nature of circumstantial evidence which failed to establish a direct causal link between the negligent act and the said incident, therefore the Appellants are entitled to the Benefit of Doubt. It was noted by the Court that A2 had also suffered some minor injuries while repairing the telephone wires that day. If the current of 11 KV had flown into the wires, he would have been charred to death. Also, the wires should have also melted under such heavy current. Moreover, it was concluded the testimony of the witnesses produced by the prosecution were in the nature of Hearsay evidence and there was no eye witness who can establish that the Appellants were working at that alleged spot on the said day.

The Court remarked, “For bringing home the guilt of the accused, prosecution has to firstly prove negligence and then establish direct nexus between negligence of the accused and the death of the victim. Perusal of the record reveals that out of various witnesses arrayed by the prosecution, there are no eye witnesses. Any evidence brought on record is merely circumstantial in nature. We are constrained to repeat our observation that it sounds completely preposterous that a telephone wire carried 11KV current without melting on contact and when such current passed through the Television set, it did not blast and melt the wiring of the entire house. It is even more unbelievable that Appellant no. 2 came in contact with the same voltage and managed to get away with a few abrasions. The Appellants therefore are entitled to be given the benefit of doubt; more so, when there is no report of a technical expert to corroborate the prosecution story.”

Key Law Positions established in the case

  1. Does the principle of res ipsa loquitur stricto sensu apply to a criminal case?

    No


    The Court reiterated the position taken in Syad Akbar Vs. State of Karnataka[1]:

    “29. Such simplified and pragmatic application of the notion of res ipsa loquitur, as a part of the general mode of inferring a fact-in-issue from another circumstantial fact is subject to all the principles, the satisfaction of which is essential before an accused can be convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence alone. These are:
    Firstly, all the circumstances, including the objective circumstances constituting the accident, from which the inference of guilt is to be drawn, must be firmly established.
    Secondly, those circumstances must be of a determinative tendency pointing unerringly towards the guilt of the accused.
    Thirdly, the circumstances should make a chain so complete that they cannot reasonably raise any other hypothesis save that of the accused’s guilt. That is to say, they should be incompatible with his innocence, and inferentially exclude all reasonable doubt about his guilt.”
  1. Is evidence of negligence on part of the accused sufficient to hold him liable under criminal liability?

    No


    The prosecution must prove both the negligence on the part of the accused as well as the direct causal relation between the alleged negligence and the injury to the victim.

  2. Can the courts assume the accused to be guilty and shift the onus of proof from the prosecution to the defence?

    No

    The Supreme Court reiterated the position which was established in the case of S.L.Goswami Vs. State of M.P[2] quoting:

    “5 ….. In our view, the onus of proving all the ingredients of an offence is always upon the prosecution and at no stage does it shift to the accused. It is no part of the prosecution duty to somehow hook the crook. Even in cases where the defence of the accused does not appear to be credible or is palpably false that burden does not become any less. It is only when this burden is discharged that it will be for the accused to explain or controvert the essential elements in the prosecution case, which would negative it. It is not however for the accused even at the initial stage to prove something which has to be eliminated by the prosecution to establish the ingredients of the offence with which he is charged, and even if the onus shifts upon the accused and the accused has to establish his plea, the standard of proof is not the same as that which rests upon the prosecution….. “

[1] MANU/SC/0275/1979; 1979 CriLJ 1374

[2] 1972 CRI.L.J.511 (SC)

Mohammad Adil Ansari

Founding Member & Editor in Chief @LegalWires.

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