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The Onus To Prove Deficiency In Services In A Consumer Case Is On The Complainant: SC [READ JUDGMENT]

The Hon’ble Supreme Court, in SGS India Ltd. Vs Dolphin International Ltd., has struck down the order of the National Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission directing the Appellant, a Quality Testing Company at the Port of Loading to pay a fine for negligence and failure to submit the report at Port of Destination

By: Divyansh Singh, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi

Honorable Supreme Court, in an appeal against the order of the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, held that the basic principle of Evidence Law which puts the onus of proof of an offense is on the person who stands to benefit from its establishment applies to the category of Consumer cases as well. The case at hand involved the Appellant, which was a testing, inspection, and certification company that tests the quality and quantity of several products. It was involved in business with the respondent complainant which contracted the Appellant’s services for inspection of the groundnuts procured by them to export to Greece and the Netherlands.

The inspection of groundnuts was carried out at the Indian Port, following which the groundnuts were dispatched to Netherlands and Greece. On arrival in Greece, the groundnuts were found to be larger than the prescribed size, whereas the groundnuts that arrived in the Netherlands contained high levels of impurities like Aflatoxins.

The Senior Counsel for Appellant, Gopal Sankarnarayana, contended that there was no responsibility attached to the Appellant beyond the borders of India.

Moreover, it was instructed to the appellant to seal containers only during the process of fumigation and after its completion, the tapes had to be removed, making the groundnuts susceptible to external factors like weather, moisture, humidity, temperature, and even storage condition, being an agricultural commodity. Also, it was argued that the Commission had not given any finding in respect of deficiency of service within the geographical limits of India.

The Senior Counsel for Respondent-Complainant argued that in addition to inspection of the quality of the shipment, the appellant was also responsible for the checking of its airtight packing.

Moreover, the Appellant failed to produce a report of an inspection carried out at the port of departure when asked by its counterpart in the Netherlands. 

Taking these facts into account, the Commission ruled in favor of the complainant, holding that the appellant failed to prove that the formation of toxins happens due to external factors as the appellant contended. This order, according to the Honourable Supreme Court, suffered from an error of law. The Honourable Supreme Court held that the onus of proof of deficiency in service lies on the Complainant, in the case of Consumer Protection Act, 1986. 

To support their reasoning, they cited the case of Ravneet Singh Bagga v. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines & Anr., wherein the Court held the following:

“6. The deficiency in service cannot be alleged without attributing fault, imperfection, shortcoming or inadequacy in the quality, nature and manner of performance which is required to be performed by a person in pursuance of a contract or otherwise in relation to any service. The burden of proving the deficiency in service is upon the person who alleges it. The complainant has, on facts, been found to have not established any wilful fault, imperfection, shortcoming or inadequacy in the service of the respondent…”

Further, the court also cited the decision of Indigo Airlines v. Kalpana Rani Debbarma & Ors. , wherein the Court held the following:

“28. In our opinion, the approach of the Consumer Fora is in complete disregard of the principles of pleadings and burden of proof. First, the material facts constituting deficiency in service are blissfully absent in the complaint as filed. Second, the initial onus to substantiate the factum of deficiency in service committed by the ground staff of the Airlines at the airport after issuing boarding passes was primarily on the respondents. That has not been discharged by them. The Consumer Fora, however, went on to unjustly shift the onus on the appellants because of their failure to produce any evidence. In law, the burden of proof would shift on the appellants only after the respondents/complainants had discharged their initial burden in establishing the factum of deficiency in service.”

The complainant failed to establish that there has to be parity in quality between Port of Departure and Port of Arrival in terms of quality, and thus the adverse inference could not be drawn against the Appellant.

The onus of proof initially is on the complainant, and only when he can prove by evidence his complaint will the onus shift to the alleged party.

Thus, the order by the Commission was set aside and the Appeal dismissed.

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