Rs 100cr order on TV lifts brows

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  • Published 15.11.11

New Delhi, Nov. 14: The Supreme Court today refused to stay a Bombay High Court order asking news channel Times Now to deposit Rs 100 crore for now as exemplary damages for defaming a former judge, prompting legal experts to dub it as “far too excessive”.

The high court had asked the channel in September to deposit in the court registry Rs 20 crore and another Rs 80 crore through a bank guarantee till it decided an appeal against a trial court order.

A Pune civil judge had asked the channel to pay Rs 100 crore as damages to Justice (retd) P.S. Sawant for mixing him up with another judge and running his photo during a programme on the provident fund scam in which several high court judges and at least one Supreme Court judge were allegedly involved.

On September 10, 2008, Times Now had shown the picture of Justice P.S. Sawant in place of Justice (retd) P.K. Samanta of Calcutta High Court.The picture was on screen for not more than 15 seconds. As soon the channel realised the mistake, it apologised and ran the apology on its scroll for five days.

Justice Sawant issued a legal notice to the channel and sued it for loss of reputation. The trial court issued a decree in the judge’s favour, asking the channel to pay Rs 100 crore by way of unliquidated (that cannot be quantified) and exemplary damages. On appeal, the high court stayed the decree but said the deposit will have to be made till the case is disposed of.

Today, the channel’s appeal came up before a Supreme Court bench of Justices G.S. Singhvi and S.J. Mukhopadhyay.

After hearing Times Now counsel Harish N. Salve, the bench said: “We see no error in the high court order. We are not inclined (to stay the high court order).”

Times Now editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami was present in the visitor’s gallery of the court.

The Rs 100-crore damages “in advance” raised quite a few eyebrows in the legal fraternity. Senior counsel K.T.S. Tulsi, who had represented the Uphaar cinema fire victims in a long battle for compensation in the courts, said that the amount was “far too excessive”. “It was a bona fide error. The channel has already tendered an apology,” he pointed out. “The error took place because of the similarity in the names of the judges.”

The quantum of damages, he pointed out, is at “odds” with the court’s pronouncements in matters of public law liability.

In the Uphaar case, for example, the Supreme Court had reduced compensation for the families of the 59 dead from Rs 18 crore to Rs 10 crore, Tulsi said. This just goes to show that there are no “uniform” norms, he said.

Constitutional expert Rajeev Dhavan attributed the huge amounts being awarded by Bombay High Court to the lower court fees there. “Bombay is increasingly becoming the defamation capital of India, just as London is the defamation capital of the world,” he said.

Lawyer Santosh Paul said Justice Sawant would have had to pay Rs 75,000 in court fees in Mumbai, compared with around Rs 4 crore in any other high court.