This article is authored by Nidhi Bajaj, of Guru Nanak Dev University, Punjab. The article presents an analysis of the landmark judgement in tort law that deals with the liability of the government for the tort committed by its servants.

It has been published by Rachit Garg.


Case name: The State of Rajasthan v. Mst. Vidhyawati and another

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Date of judgment: 02/02/1962

Citation: 1962 AIR 933, 1962 SCR Supl. (2) 989

Court: The Supreme Court of India

Bench: Sinha, Bhuvneshwar P.(CJ), Kapur, J.L., Hidayatullah, M., Shah, J.C., Mudholkar, J.R.

This is a landmark judgment dealing with the issue of liability of the State for the tortious act of its servants. This issue came before the Hon’ble Supreme Court in a civil appeal filed against the order and judgment of the Rajasthan High Court. 

Facts of the case

Lokumal i.e. Defendant no. 1, a temporary employee of the State of Rajasthan was employed as a motor driver (on probation) of a government jeep car under the Collector of Udaipur. The car had been sent for repairs. On February 11, 1952, while driving the car back from the workshop after the repairs were done, defendant no. 1 knocked down one Jagdishlal, who was walking on the footpath by the side of the public road. Jagdishlal was severely injured and his skull and backbone were fractured. Three days later, he died in the hospital. The Plaintiffs, i.e., widow of Jagdishlal and his daughter aged 3 years, through her mother as next friend filed a suit for damages for tort against Lokumal and the State of Rajasthan (Defendant no. 2) claiming compensation of Rs. 25,000 from both defendants. Defendant No. 1 remained ex-parte and the suit was contested by Defendant No. 2 on various issues. 

Decision of the Trial Court

The Trial Court decreed the suit of the plaintiff as against Defendant No. 1 but dismissed the suit against Defendant No. 2. The Court held that the fact that the car was maintained for the use of a collector for discharging his official duties is sufficient to exclude the case from the category of cases wherein the vicarious liability of the employer could be made out. The Trial Court held that Defendant No. 1 was rash and negligent in driving the car that caused the accident which ultimately led to the death of the deceased. 

Decision of the High Court

The plaintiff, aggrieved by the order of the Trial Court, filed an appeal to the Rajasthan High Court. The High Court decreed the suit of the plaintiff as against the second defendant also. The Court ordered Defendant no. 2, i.e., the State of Rajasthan to pay compensation of Rs. 15,000 to the plaintiff.

It was held that “the State is in no better position in so far as it supplies cars and keeps drivers for its civil service. It may be clarified that we are not here considering the case of drivers employed by the State for driving vehicles which are utilised for military or public service.”

Thereafter, the State of Rajasthan filed an appeal to the Hon’ble Supreme Court after obtaining a certificate under Article 133 of the Constitution of India from the High Court certifying that the case involved a question of general public importance.


  • Whether the State of Rajasthan is vicariously liable for the tortious act committed by its servant?
  • Whether the driving of the jeep car from the workshop back to the Collector’s place can be regarded as being done in exercise of sovereign function/power of the State?

Contentions of the parties 

Submissions made by the Defendant-appellants

  • It was argued on the behalf of defendant-appellants that the question of liability of the State has to be determined in terms of Article 300(1) of the Constitution. It was submitted that the State of Rajasthan could not be held liable under Article 300 of the Constitution of India as the liability of the corresponding Indian State would not have been made out if the case had arisen prior to the commencement of the Constitution. 
  • It was argued that in order to succeed in his case and prove the liability on the part of the State of Rajasthan, the respondent-plaintiff must prove that the State of Udaipur i.e. corresponding state would have been liable if the case had arisen before the enactment of the Constitution. 
  • It was also submitted that the jeep car was being maintained in the exercise of sovereign functions and not as a part of any commercial activity of the State.

Submissions made by the Plaintiff-respondents

  • It was submitted on the behalf of plaintiff-respondent that Chapter III of Part XII of the Constitution of India, namely “Property, Contracts, Rights, Obligations and Suits” contains other articles i.e. Article 294 and 295 which deal with rights and liabilities, whereas Article 300 merely addresses the question that in whose name the suit may be filed. Article 300 does not deal with the extent of liability of a State and is not relevant in the case at hand.


  • The Supreme Court said that it is clear from the findings of the courts below that the tortious act was committed by Defendant no. 2 in circumstances wholly dissociated from the exercise of sovereign powers. 
  • The Court upheld the decision of the High Court holding Defendant no. 2 liable by laying down the correct legal position that the State was in no better position than any other employer in so far as supplying cars and keeping drivers for its civil services was concerned. 
  • Construction of Article 300(1) of the Constitution

The Court proceeded to construe the true meaning and effect of Article 300(1). The court pointed out that Article 300 has three parts—

  1. The first part provides for the form and cause-title in a suit. It states that a State may sue or be sued by the name of the State. 
  2. Secondly, that State may sue or be sued in relation to its affairs in like cases as the corresponding provinces/Indian State might have sued or been sued had the Constitution not been enacted. 
  3. The second part is subject to any provisions made by an Act of the legislature of the concerned State, in the due exercise of its legislative functions and pursuance of powers conferred by the Constitution. 

The Hon’ble Supreme Court rejected the contention of respondent-plaintiff that Article 300 is wholly irrelevant for determining the vicarious liability of the State. While acknowledging that Articles 294 and 295 deal with rights to property, assets and liabilities and obligations of the erstwhile Indian States, the Court however observed that these Articles primarily deal with devolution of these rights and liabilities and do not define them. These Articles merely provide for the substitution of one government in place of other. 

The Court also held that the second part of Article 300(1) defines the extent of liability by using the expression “in the like cases” and referred back to the legal position as it existed before the enactment of the Constitution for deciding such cases. 

The Court held that under Article 300 of the Constitution (which related the law on the subject to 1833 Charter Act through Section 10 of the Charter Act, Section 65 of the Government of India Act 1858, Section 32 of the Act of 1915, Section 176 of the Act of 1935), the ratio decidendi of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. case (1861) applied. In that case, it was held that “The Secretary of State-in-Council of India is liable for the damages occasioned by the negligence of servants in the service of Government if the negligence is such as would render an ordinary employer liable”.

  • The Court propounded the following principles on the issue of liability of the State for the tortious act committed by its servant:
  1. It was held that the State should be liable for tort committed by its servant within the scope of his employment just as any other employer. 
  2. The Court held that the common law immunity that the ‘king can do no wrong’ does not exist in India. Moreover, since the time of the East India Company,  the Sovereign has been held liable to be sued in tort and contract and the aforesaid common law immunity never operated in India. 
  3. With the enactment of the Constitution of India, we have adopted a republican form of government and one of the objectives is to establish a socialistic State. As the State is expected to perform varied industrial and other activities that require the State to employ a large number of servants, there is no justification whether in principle, or in public interest, that the State should not be held liable vicariously for the tortious act of its servant.
  • The Court observed that in order to judge the liability of the State of Rajasthan under Article 300(1), it would not be possible to go beyond the last stage of integration leading to the formation of the Rajasthan Union on the eve of the Constitution and that Union would be the corresponding State as contemplated by the Article. It was held that the State of Rajasthan had not been able to show that its predecessor would not have been liable had the case arisen in the pre-Constitution era. 
  • It was held that in absence of any contrary provision of law, the liability of the Union of Rajasthan for the acts committed by its servant would be the same as that of the Dominion of India or any of its constituent provinces. 
  • As neither the Parliament nor the State Legislature has enacted any law exercising their right under Article 300, the law shall remain the same as it had been since the days of the East India Company. 

Hence, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal with costs. 

Relevant cases mentioned in the judgment 

  • State of Bihar v. Abdul Majid(1954): The Court placed reliance on this judgment for recognising the right of the government servant to sue the government for recovery of arrears of salary. 
  • The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company v. the Secretary of State for India (1861): This case was decided by the Supreme Court of Calcutta on receiving a reference from the Small Cause Court Judge. Brief facts of the case were— One of the horses drawing the plaintiffs carriage was injured due to the negligence of the Government employees in carrying a piece of the iron funnel. The plaintiff company claimed damages against the Secretary of the State. Learned Advocate General appearing on the behalf of the defendant contended before the Court that the State cannot be held liable for damages occasioned by the negligence of  persons in its  employment and that the State cannot be sued in its own court without its consent. The Court pointed out that in order to remove these difficulties arising in the way of getting redressal, the liability of the Secretary of the State in place of that of the East India company was specifically provided. The Court held the Secretary of State liable for the tortious act of its servant. It also clarified that the liability of the Secretary of the State was not a personal liability but had to be satisfied out of the revenues of India. 

Analysis & observation

In this case, the Court undertook an in-depth analysis for determining the issue of the liability of the State for the tortious acts committed by its servants.  

Reliance was placed on the case of Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company, wherein it was said that a clear distinction has to be maintained between those acts that are done in exercise of sovereign power or sovereign function  and those acts that are done in conduct of undertaking which might be carried on by private individuals without having to delegate the power to them. Immunity shall be given only for those acts which are done in the exercise of sovereign power, i.e., the power that cannot be lawfully exercised except by a sovereign or any private individual to whom the power has been delegated.

While fixing the liability of the State of Rajasthan, the Court, in this case (the State of Rajasthan v. Vidhyawati), said that no provision of common law or statutory law has been shown which could exonerate the State from the liability. Also, with regard to the applicability of the maxim ‘the king can do no wrong’, the Court said that the rule has become outmoded in the UK itself with the enactment of the Crown Proceedings Act, 1947. Section 2(1) of the said Act provides for the liability of the Crown for the torts committed by its servants or agents as if it were a private person. 

However, the Court also pointed out that even before the enactment of the aforesaid Act, the rule of absolute immunity of the sovereign was never applicable in India. 


This judgment is the first ever post-constitution decision dealing with the issue of liability of the government for tortious acts of its employees. The case laid down in clear terms that the driving of the jeep car by the driver from the workshop to the Collector’s residence was not a part of the sovereign function of the State. A clear and wise distinction has to be made between the acts done in exercise of sovereign power and other acts of the State. A modern welfare State undertakes various activities such as industrial, commercial, public transport etc. for the welfare of the general public. No longer are the functions of the State confined to the maintenance of law and order. In such circumstances, it becomes pertinent that the State is not granted absolute immunity in all cases and should be held liable for the acts of its employees just like an ordinary employer. 


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