HC ruling on improper care of seized vehicles

Staff Reporter

MADURAI: Vehicle owners cannot claim damages either from the Regional Transport Officers or police officials for not taking proper care of their seized vehicles unless they were able to prove any malicious intention on the part of the officials, the Madras High Court Bench here has held.

Justice R.S. Ramanathan passed the ruling while reversing a direction issued by a lower court to the Thanjavur Regional Transport Officer and the Pattukottai sub-inspector of police to pay Rs. 50,000 as compensation to the owner of a mini lorry which turned into scrap after being seized for non-payment of motor vehicle tax.

Allowing an appeal suit filed jointly by the RTO, the sub-inspector as well as the State government represented by the Thanjavur Collector, the judge held that the lower court had come to an erroneous conclusion that the officials were liable to compensate the vehicle owner for improper maintenance of the vehicle.

“After seizing the vehicle in exercise of their statutory powers, the officials have acted in a prudent manner by keeping the vehicle in safe custody so that it cannot be removed without their knowledge. Of course, in that process the vehicle may be exposed to sun and rain, but for that one cannot blame the officials,” the judge said.

He also refused to accept the vehicle owner’s contention that the officials were liable to compensate him for non-compliance of Section 18 A of the Motor Vehicles Act. The Section empowers officials to auction the vehicle after ninety days of seizure and pay the sale proceeds to the owner after deducting the tax dues along with penalty.

Mr. Justice Ramanathan said that allegations against the officials could be categorised into three – Malfeasance (commission of some act which is positively unlawful), Misfeasance (improper performance of some act which a man may lawfully do) and Non feasance (non performance of some act which ought to be performed).

In the present case, the RTO had committed an act of Non feasance in not selling the vehicle after ninety days. According to an English judgement in Dunlop vs Woollahra Municipal Council (1981), the claim for Non feasance could not be accepted unless it was impressed with characteristics such as malice or bad faith.

To add to it, as per Section 22 of the Tamil Nadu Motor Vehicle Taxation Act, no suit or prosecution would lie against any official for an action done in good faith.

“Therefore, the Act postulates that in order to claim damages from Government officials, any commission or omission by them must have been done in bad faith,” the judge added.

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