Observing that animals, including elephants, are entitled to compensation in road accidents, the Supreme Court has upheld an award of Rs. 13.48 lakh for the death of a temple elephant after it was hit by a Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) bus.
A Bench of Justices B.S. Chauhan and T.S. Thakur did not agree with the contention of the KSRTC — in its appeal against the Kerala High Court verdict, which upheld the Motor Accident Claims Tribunal's award — that the Motor Vehicles Act would apply only to human beings and not to animals.
Interestingly, this compensation to an elephant is more than what was awarded by the Supreme Court recently to the victims in the Uphaar cinema tragedy. In that case, the compensation awarded by the High Court was reduced from Rs. 20 lakh to Rs. 10 lakh.
In this appeal, when the matter was taken up two days ago, Justice Thakur told counsel Harris Beeran, appearing for the Corporation: “The elephant is owned by the temple which means it's God's property. We do not want to hair-split the provisions of law.”
When counsel pleaded helplessness on the part of the KSRTC in making the payment stating that it was incurring a loss of almost Rs. 2 crore per month, Justice Thakur retorted in a lighter vein: “That means the black elephant was hit by a white elephant.”
When Justice Thakur wanted to know how the compensation was calculated for the death of the elephant, Mr. Harris said each elephant was annually earning Rs. 2 lakh and this was taken into consideration while fixing the award.
Asked whether temple elephants were also given on rent or hired by others, counsel replied that during festivals, they would be hired by other temples and thereby the animals bring in more revenue. Counsel, however, argued that the Motor Vehicles Act would not cover animals and both the Tribunal and the High Court had erred in giving an award which was grossly over-estimated and excessive.
Justice Thakur said: “The definition of property in the Motor Vehicles Act is very wide and is inclusive. Although it does not specifically mention animals, since it is inclusive, animals also should be included.”
The Bench affirmed the High Court's order and dismissed the special leave petition at the admission stage itself.
The 27-year-old elephant, Gangadharan, was owned by the Thiruppallavur Devaswom at Palakkad and was hit by the bus on November 23, 1996.
The animal sustained injuries and later died. The temple claimed compensation before the Tribunal, stating the elephant brought a revenue of Rs. 2 lakh per year.