A Bench of the Supreme Court consisting of Justice Hemant Gupta and Justice V. Ramasubramanian has reiterated that the onus of proof of deficiency in service is on the complainant in complaints under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. "It is the complainant who had approached the Commission, therefore, without any proof of deficiency, the opposite party cannot be held responsible for deficiency in service.", the Court has held.

In this case, an appeal was filed by SGS Limited against the order of the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) directing it to pay a sum of Rs.65,74,000/- with interest at 9% p.a. from the date of filing of complaint till realization to the complainant Dolphin International Limited.

The complainant had engaged the appellant for providing services for inspection of groundnut procured by the complainant for the purpose of exporting it to Greece and Netherlands. The appellant carried out the inspection and analysis of hand-picked and selected peanuts which were to be exported. However, a dispute arose over the quality and condition of peanuts in the destination countries, where the ship reached after two and half months.

The appellant argued before the Bench that there was no responsibility or assurance of the appellant beyond the borders of India and that they were to only satisfy the quantity, quality, weight and packaging of the consignment at the time of shipment. It had no control or responsibility of the subject shipment once the shipment left the Indian port. There was no corresponding obligation to ensure that the packed consignment would have the same specifications at the port of destination as well.

Accepting the arguments, the Bench held that the onus of proof that there was deficiency in service is on the complainant. If the complainant is able to discharge its initial onus, the burden would then shift to the respondent in the complaint. "The rule of evidence before the civil proceedings is that the onus would lie on the person who would fail if no evidence is led by the other side. Therefore, the initial burden of proof of deficiency in service was on the complainant."

The Bench found that no proof of negligence while loading a consignment was produced by the complainant and therefore the appellant can't be held responsible at the port of destination. In addition, there was no clause or obligation in a contract for the appellant that the goods consigned have to meet the products specifications at the time of loading of consignment. "In the absence of any clause in the contract to ensure that the goods consigned has to meet the products specifications at the time of loading of consignment, the appellant cannot be held liable for change in specifications of the agricultural produce at the destination port after being in transit for two months on the high seas."

The Bench noted that, "the orders on the appellant to quality check the groundnuts do not indicate that there was any obligation on the part of the appellant to ensure that the requirements as specified at the port of loading should also be met at the port of destination. The appellant has certified the weight, packing, quality and quantity of the consignment at the port of loading. There is no allegation that there was any deficiency either in respect of weight, packing, quality or quantity against the appellant."

The Bench set aside the order of the NCDRC and allowed the appeal.

Parties: SGS India Ltd Vs. Dolphin International Ltd.