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Court orders air crash cash

Ahmedabad, Oct. 14: Families of passengers who die in an air crash on a domestic flight in India can now hope to get compensation over and above the limit laid down under the law if it is proved that the carrier was at fault.

Gujarat High Court today upheld a lower court order directing Indian Airlines (now Air India) and Airports Authority of India (AAI) to pay compensation of Rs 6 crore with interest to 34 families of passengers who died in a 1988 plane crash near Ahmedabad.

The amount has to be disbursed, according to the claims made by each of the families in their respective petitions, within December 31 this year.

Aviation officials said the court award of compensation to air crash victims was perhaps a first in India and could set a precedent.

A similar case demanding higher compensation was filed by a some victims of the hijacked Indian Airlines Flight IC 814.

The matter is pending before the Supreme Court after lower courts ruled in favour of the hijack victims, airline sources said. Officials at both Air India and AAI were unwilling to comment on today’s Ahmedabad verdict or on the hijack case as it is sub-judice.

Compensation for crashes and hijacking are governed by the Carriage by Air Act and is paid by the insurance company which gives the airline a cover against such events. Aviation sources said they expected the Ahmedabad ruling to be challenged in the Supreme Court as the Act did not allow compensation higher than that provided in the legislation.

The law was amended in 2004 to increase the compensation amount in case of air crash deaths on domestic flights to Rs 7.5 lakh to the next of kin of the victim. At the time of the Ahmedabad accident, the amount was Rs 2 lakh. The Boeing 737-200 plane, on a flight from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, had crashed two km away from the airport here on October 19, 1988, killing 127 of the 129 people on board. Flight IC 113 was approaching the runway in foggy weather when it struck trees and a high-tension pylon before crashing into a field and bursting into flames.

The two who miraculously survived the crash were Vinod Tripathi, the vice-chancellor of Gujarat Vidhyapith, and Ashok Agrawal, a young businessman. While Tripathi suffered no injuries, Agrawal remained bedridden for several months with a broken leg and virtually lost his eyesight.

Then civil aviation minister Shivraj Patil had announced in Parliament a compensation of Rs 2 lakh, as per the Carriage by Air Act, to the next of kin of each of those killed in the crash.

The amount was accepted by all the families, including the 34 which, in 1989, approached a lower court demanding higher compensation. The petitioners contended that those who were killed or injured were persons with high incomes and their families would incur severe financial losses owing to the negligence of Indian Airlines and AAI.

The 34 petitioners, including survivor Agrawal, had filed separate civil suits in the sessions court in Ahmedabad demanding compensation amounts ranging from Rs 4.5 lakh to Rs 60 lakh, citing their professional income.

The plane crash victims included doctors, engineers, chartered accountants, company secretaries and senior executives who were drawing good salaries, said Subhash Barot, the advocate for the petitioners.

The sessions court upheld their plea in March 2003, holding the airline and AAI guilty of negligence, and ordered a combined compensation of Rs 6 crore, which included six per cent annual interest levied from the date of filing of the civil suit. The amount had to be forked out by Indian Airlines and AAI on a 70:30 ratio.

Both the airline as well as AAI challenged the order in the high court, arguing they were not responsible for the crash and, therefore, were not liable to pay compensation.

After hearing arguments for close to six years, the division bench of Justice MS Shah and Justice HN Devani today upheld the sessions court order. The bench ordered the airline and AAI to pay the compensation to the petitioners by December 31, 2009, along with the prevailing interest rate of nine per cent per annum to be calculated from the date of filing of the suit.

The court, however, increased the airline’s liability to 90 per cent and that of AAI was reduced to 10 per cent.

Both agencies requested the court to stay the order for three months so they could approach the apex court.

But the division bench rejected the appeal, saying there is no need to grant a stay as they have been given enough time to pay the compensation amount.

The court also directed the airline and the aviation authority to bear the litigation costs of the petitioners, advocate Barot said.

Most countries are signatories to the Montreal Convention that fixes compensation amounts for deaths and other mishaps during air travel. India joined the convention only in June this year after passing the Carriage by Air (Amendment) Act of 2009.

Under the amended law, carriers will have to pay a minimum compensation of nearly $140,000 (Rs 65 lakh) for the death of a passenger in a crash during an international flight. The amount is a seven-fold jump from the previous limit.

(With inputs from our Delhi bureau)

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