*Bank liable for break-in and theft from locker | Business Standard Column

Clipped from: https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/bank-liable-for-break-in-and-theft-from-locker-122042400916_1.html

The National Commission observed that when a locker is broken into, it constitutes a breach of the promised assurance of safety, and is hence, a deficiency in service

Jehangir B Gai

Gopal Prasad Mahanty and his daughter Rupali had been customers of State Bank of India’s Bokaro Steel City Branch in Jharkhand for nearly four decades. They had a savings bank account, several high-value fixed deposits, and a locker.

On the night between December 25 and 26, 2017, a theft took place in the bank. Several lockers were broken open, including the one rented by Mahanty. Items such as jewellery, postal deposit instruments, and other valuables kept in the locker were stolen. Mahanty learnt about the theft through the news telecast on 26th evening. Next morning, his daughter and he rushed to the bank to find three lists posted on the wall of the main entrance. Their locker (number 1/46) was listed as one of those that had been broken open. The bank officer asked them to furnish a list of their valuables. They assessed the loss of gold jewellery at Rs 32 lakh and silver at Rs 1,85,000, excluding the antique value, and wrist watches worth Rs 34,000. Bank and postal documents were also stolen.

To recover the loss of these valuables, Mahanty and his daughter filed a complaint before the Jharkhand State Commission. They alleged that the bank had failed to follow the guidelines prescribed by the Reserve Bank of India. The bank contested the complaint, denying all the allegations made against it. It claimed that it had followed the Reserve Bank’s guidelines and had installed a fire detection system, a security alarm system and CCTVs, both inside and outside its premises, and these were functional when the theft occurred. It argued that there was no deficiency in service. The bank sought a dismissal of the complaint.

The State Commission observed that the bank had merely rented out space and had no knowledge of the contents of the locker, and even Mahanty was not in a position to prove what was stored in it. So, it concluded that it would be impossible to adjudicate the value of the loss when the contents could not be determined. Nevertheless, it was evident that a huge loss must have been caused due to the breaking open of the locker, which had been taken on rent in good faith to secure valuables. So, the State Commission awarded Rs 30 lakh as compensation for the mental trauma suffered due to the loss. This amount was ordered to be paid in one month, or along with 6 per cent interest, if payment was delayed.

Both the bank and Mahanty challenged this order in cross appeal. The bank claimed that the police had recovered a part of the stolen property from the thieves, and this had been identified by Mahanty. It also reiterated its defence and contended that it was wrongly being held liable.

Mahanty pointed out that the police had recovered only a small quantity of the lost jewellery, much of which had been damaged during the theft.

The National Commi­ssion observed that a locker is hired because safety is assured. When a locker is broken open by thieves, it constitutes a breach of the assurance of safety, resulting in a deficiency in service. The Commission further held that the bank could not be absolved of its liability merely because some of the jewellery had been recovered, and that too in a damaged state.

Accordingly, by its order of April 7, 2022, delivered by the bench of Justice R.K. Agrawal and S. M. Kantikar, the National Commission dismissed the cross-appeals, holding that the lump sum compensation awarded by the State Commission was reasonable and proper.

The writer is a consumer activist

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