Madras High Court Rules Breath Alcohol Smell Not Grounds for Negligence in Accidents

Madras HC rules: Alcohol smell insufficient for negligence. Ramesh v. Selvakumar in accident case. Court mandates breath tests for fairness.

The Madras High Court recently made an important observation regarding alcohol detection in motor accident cases, emphasizing that simply smelling alcohol on a person's breath is not sufficient grounds to assign contributory negligence. Justice Anand Venkatesh stressed the importance of determining the percentage of alcohol in the blood to ascertain if the person was fit to drive.

"This practice shall be made mandatory since there is an increase in the number of cases where the rider of the vehicle drives the vehicle after consuming alcohol... It has to be made mandatory to assess the level of alcohol in the blood at least in cases where accidents take place," the court remarked.

The case involved Ramesh, who challenged an order from the Motor Accidents Claims Tribunal (MACT) seeking an enhancement of compensation. The MACT had attributed 50% contributory negligence to Ramesh, citing his failure to maintain a safe distance from the lorry involved in the accident and the alleged smell of alcohol on his breath during treatment.

The court highlighted the state's responsibility in providing alcohol to citizens and dealing with its consequences. It clarified that alcohol consumption itself is not an offense; rather, the focus should be on whether it affected the person's driving capacity.

Referring to Section 185 of the Motor Vehicles Act, the court noted a legal presumption of impairment at a blood alcohol level of 30mg per 100 ml. As no assessment was made regarding Ramesh's blood alcohol level, the court deemed the allegation insufficient to prove contributory negligence.

Regarding safe distance maintenance, the court acknowledged the practical challenges, particularly on narrow roads. It stated that hitting the rear of a vehicle due to sudden braking would not necessarily imply contributory negligence.

Consequently, the court allowed Ramesh's appeal and modified the MACT's order.