The Art of Interpreting Law….

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This post is not on ‘X’ law or ‘Y’. It’s on the method of it. As young judges/aspirants, over a lifetime of adjudication, you’d be faced with a myriad of different fact situations and various laws to interpret. There, even if you don’t know the right answer, knowing the right method will keep you afloat. Some tools of interpretation which have stood the test of time, would keep you firmly anchored. We’d kick-off a series of discussions on these over the next few posts. The importance of this would be highlighted by the following case (fictionalised form of a real case) which we would encourage the students to attempt.

Picture this, You are the judge; the judge of Court of the last resort. The other colleagues on the bench are evenly divided. You have the casting vote. The facts are as follows:

  • The case relates to an incident that took place at ‘X’ water reservoir/dam in Karnataka;
  • A couple was spending time there on the reservoir property;
  • An employee operating the reservoir/dam, knowing perfectly well that the couple was there (since he was perched up on a tower) and might be endangered, released the accumulated flood-water by opening the flood-gates.
  • There was no urgent need for something like this.
  • Needless to state, the couple got swept away by the floor. Husband dies, wife luckily survives.
  • Wife sued the government for damages in tort.
  • District Court found the action of the employee of the government as ‘gross and negligent’ and held government liable. Government files appeal and the plot thickens here:
  • There is a law – let’s call it – 1972 Karnataka Torts Act which allows tort claims to be filed against the state government, but it expressly excludes liability for/arising from actions relating to flood-water. The Flood Water Act of 1954, in turn, says “no liability of any kind shall attach to or rest upon the State for any damage from or by flood or flood waters at any place”.
  • The issue that arises is : whether this statutory exception/immunity would cover loss of human life or not? 
  • The Arguments made for both the sides are:
    • The contents of the reservoir are ‘flood waters’ under the 1954 statute, because a prior Supreme Court decision says so.
    • There has been no litigation under the Flood Water Act, 1954 and the statute appears to have fallen-into disuse and appears not having been used at all.
    • It is trite law that waiver of an immunity is to be narrowly constructed.
    • The surviving spouse in this case is extremely poor and bereft of any means.
    • Legislative history of 1954 Act shows that the act was made with a view to conserve farm-land which was always vulnerable to floods. The reservoir/Dam was intended to provide that protection. Human life conservation does not appear to be the aim/intent of this act.
    • The immunity provision in the 1954 Act is pretty wide – it says – no liability of any kind for any damage at any place.
    • Immunity Statute – Flood Water Act of 1954 is extremely old and the recent judicial trend seems to be to narrow down/limit tort immunities and not enlarge their scope.
    • Purpose of the statute was to protect the state from a series of law suits and to allow it to carry out flood-control measures, in the larger good.
    • Original drafters of the law never envisioned that reservoirs/dams would be used for leisurely activity or would be open to individuals for walks etc.

What would you do?

Answers in comments section, please.

We’d discuss the name/citation of the case and the decision (and discussion thereon) in the next few posts.

2 comments

  1. The issues in this case involves is that
    1. Whether there is any negligence on part of the employee who was opertaing reservior?
    2 whether the petitioner wife should be compensated for the loss of her husband’s life because of sheer negligence of employee operating reservior?
    3. Whether the exemption as contained in the Flood water act 1954 is applicable to the facs of the above case ?

    In my opinion as per the given facts above two issues should be aswered affirmatively in as much as the employee himself had seen and was fully aware that a couple was sitting on reservior property, he without having given any prior warning to them had released water from the reservior and only because of his gross negligence act he had caused loss of life of the husband of the petitioner wife. Therefore damages should be given to the wife of the deceased subject to any exemption.
    Now coming to the third issue, it is only the interpretation of the exemption/ immunity, which is creating an embargo upon the giving of damges in tort act of karnataka. To answer this complex issue the object of the tort act and purposive interpretation of Karnataka tort and flood act should be given.
    Object of tort act is to compensate petitioner for any negligent acts or ommissions on part of the government. Plus the exemption/exception clause as contained in Flood act provides immunity to the governmemt if the loss or damage is caused by the flood water. The rules of interpretation provides that the exception should be read narrowly and only in strict sense therefore only strict interpretation should be given. Now reading and interprating the tort act and the above mentioned exemption Clause I am of the firm opinion that the Petitioner wife should be compensated in as much as the exemption talks about immunity from “ flood water” , the water so released by the erring employee is not a “flood water” in its strict sense. The very word “flood water” denotes a stream of water which is not under the control of anyone and notoriously heading on its own and has a possibility of harming life and property. Whereas in the case in hand the water was reserved/accumulated and the release of water is at the discretion of the employee, which discretion he should have exercises with due care and caution, which he had failed to do so. The loss of life of the petitioner’s husband is only because of the act of the erring employee who despite having knowledge of the couple being sitting upon the dam released the accumulated water without any prior warning to the happy couple from dam/ reservior, the consequence of his act was release of accumulated water which killed the husband of the petitioner. Therefore, the loss of life of husband of the petitioner is directly associated to the act of the employee operating reservior and is condemnable. The justice requires that the wife should be compensated and exmeption should be strictly interpretated not applicable to the above case.

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  2. Text of the statute makes it clear that immunity attaches to “any damage from or by floods or flood waters . . . .”Accordingly,
    the scope of the immunity will be determined, not by the character of the project or the purposes it serves, but by the
    character of the waters that cause the relevant damage and the purposes behind its release as held by Stevens, J. Facts herein are loosely based upon his judgment for US Supreme Court in CENTRAL GREEN CO. v. UNITED STATES (2001).

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