Bank Locker: SBI Asked To Pay Rs10 Lakh Compensation for Deficiency in Service, Security Lapses
Moneylife Digital Team 08 May 2024
Holding State Bank of India (SBI) deficient in service in respect of lapses in the due care and attention to the safety and security of its locker, the national consumer disputes redressal commission (NCDRC) asked SBI to pay a compensation of Rs10 lakh to the customer. NCDRC, however, reduced the compensation and cost of Rs24.45 lakh as awarded by the state commission to a compensation of Rs10 lakh, saying the value of the contents of the locker cannot be adjudicated before a consumer forum. 
 
In an order last month, the NCDRC bench of Subhash Chandra (presiding member) and Dr Sadhna Shanker (member) says, "This is a clear case of deficiency in service on the part of the Bank regarding security of the complainant's locker. The Bank had failed to exercise due care and due diligence in maintaining the complainants' locker. As regards the loss on account of contents of the locker, it is a settled legal proposition that the dispute regarding the contents of the locker must be evaluated by the civil court for proper appreciation of the evidence led by the parties."
 
The case was filed by three children of the Guwahati-based late Prakash Ch Medhi and his wife Hemmalata. In 1997, the Medhis availed of the locker facility from SBI for keeping their valuables. Since they wanted to visit their son in Toronto, Canada, in the last week of March 2010, they kept all the gold ornaments in the locker and locked it properly with their key. They reported to the locker-in-charge, who checked the locker and issued a certificate that the locker operated during the day had been appropriately locked.
 
However, on 7 October 2010, Indrani Baishya, daughter of the Medhis, received a call from SBI asking them to visit the branch immediately, intimating that something wrong had happened with the locker allotted to the Medhis.
 
When the Medhis and Ms Baishya visited the bank, they found their locker was sealed by affixing a piece of paper. The deputy manager of SBI removed the paper in their presence and asked them to open the locker. While opening the locker, the Medhis found that the locker was already open and all the ornaments kept in the locker were missing except for one pouch in the corner. 
 
They immediately lodged a written complaint to SBI. However, in the complaint, they could not give the accurate figure of the ornaments and their valuables. They requested the branch manager to inform the police immediately. Late in the evening, SBI registered a first information report (FIR). 
 
The Medhis alleged that they have suffered a monetary loss of Rs23.85 lakh apart from mental agony and filed a complaint before the Assam state consumer disputes redressal commission.
 
In its written submission, SBI contended that the Medhis had left the locker room with the key without locking it and misrepresented to the locker-in-charge that it had been properly locked. It stated that this came to the knowledge on 7 October 2010 when its employee Mridula Bhattacharjee, went to the locker room while the technician from Godrej was repairing one of the defective lockers. The locker of the Medhis was sealed in front of bank officials and other witnesses, it added.
 
During the pendency of the complaint, Mr Medhi expired and was replaced by his children, Ms Baishya, Srabani Baishya and Pradip Kumar Medhi. 
 
In its order on 5 September 2019, the state commission allowed the complaint. It directed SBI to pay a compensation of Rs23.85 lakh against the value of the ornaments and jewellery with interest at the rate of 8%pa (per annum) from filing the complaint till realisation. It also asked SBI to pay Rs50,000 towards compensation for mental agony and harassment and Rs10,000 for litigation costs.
 
Aggrieved by the order, SBI approached NCDRC. It argued that the Medhis failed to produce an income tax (I-T) return or any other documentary evidence relating to the jewellery worth Rs23.85 lakh. The fault lies with the late Mr Medhi, as he had not properly locked the locker, and if the locker had not been properly locked, the bank could not be blamed.
 
As per clauses 3, 12, 13 and 18 of the locker agreement, it is the responsibility of the complainants or hirer and not of the bank to ensure that the locker is properly closed or not and the bank is only responsible for ensuring that no access is given to any stranger, the counsel for SBI submitted. 
 
The counsel for the Medhis argued that it is unbelievable that SBI noticed that the locker was not properly locked after a seven-month gap. "Even if for the sake of arguments, it is believed, the conduct of the officials of SBI palpably displays the negligence on its part and is a clear case of deficiency on the part of the Bank."
 
The NCDRC bench also perused an affidavit submitted by Ms Bhattacharjee from SBI. It observed that it is manifest that the Medhis visited SBI on 11 March 2010. "It is admitted that Ms Bhattacharjee did not pay attention so far as operation and properly locking of the locker by the Medhis, and her duty was over after applying the master key to open the locker."
 
"It is seen that the alleged lapse on the part of the Medhis came to light after a long gap of seven months. It is the duty of the bank officials to open and lock the locker room on a daily basis during business hours, and not noticing such a lapse for such a long period is unlikely. It is an admitted fact that the bank official found that the locker hired by the complainants was open while some technician from Godrej was engaged to repair some defective lockers," the bench noted.
 
Further, it says the deficiencies pointed out by the Medhis regarding the safety and security systems of the Bank have not been answered or contradicted by SBI. "It simply stated that the Medhis had not locked the locker properly, for which they failed to produce any concrete evidence. This is a clear case of deficiency in service on the part of SBI regarding the security of the Medhis' locker. The Bank had failed to exercise due care and due diligence in maintaining the complainants' locker."
 
Modifying the state commission's order, NCDRC directed SBI to pay a compensation of Rs10 lakh to the Medhis within six weeks. 
 
(First Appeal No1986 of 2019 Date: 26 April 2024)
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