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Above: The swimming pool of the KTDC-run Hotel Samudra where a guest drowned/Photo: ktdc.com

The SC has pulled up the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation for deficiency of services leading to the death of a guest in Hotel Samudra 13 years ago

By Dr NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

Exactly 13 years after the death of a man in a swimming pool of a Kerala  Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC)-run hotel in Thiruvanan­tha­puram, the apex court ruled that the hotel management had the responsibility to ensure his safety.

It was on March 21, 2006 that Satyendra Pratap Singh entered the pool of Samudra Hotel in Kovalam with his brother between 6 pm and 6.30 pm. He became unconscious and drowned in the pool. Though he was pulled out and taken to hospital, he died at 9.30 pm.

Singh and his family, hailing from Punjab, had checked into the hotel for a day. Following the incident, his wife Deepti Singh lodged a consumer complaint accusing KTDC of deficiency of service. She alleged that there was no lifeguard nor did any employee of the hotel come to her husband’s rescue. A foreigner, who was nearby, came to the victim’s rescue.

However, KTDC contended that the lifeguard on duty had also tried to save him. The National Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission (NCDRC) held that there was a deficiency of service on the part of the hotel management as the lifeguard on duty had also been assigned the task of a bartender. It quoted safety guidelines for water sports issued by the National Institute of Water Sports, Ministry of Tourism.

In its order, the Commission said: “Assigning a lifeguard with an additional duty of attending to the bar was liable to distract his attention, and he may not be able to keep a close watch on the guests swimming in the pool.” It further said: “While attending to his duties as a bartender, the employee would necessarily have to leave the pool, even for a short period of time, to attend to guests outside the pool.”

KTDC then moved the apex court with an appeal. Upholding the NCDRC order of April 28, 2015 asking KTDC to pay Rs 62.5 lakh compensation to the family of Singh, the Supreme Court stated that “a hotel which provides a swimming pool for its guests owes a duty of care” to them.

“Since the facility of a swimming pool was available for use by the guests of the hotel, there was a close and proximate relationship between the management involving the maintenance of safe conditions in the pool and guests of the hotel using the pool… The duty of care arises from the fact that unless the pool is properly maintained and supervised by trained personnel, it is likely to become a potential source of hazard and danger,” a bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and Hemant Gupta ruled.

The apex court pointed out that every guest who enters the pool may not have the same level of proficiency as a swimmer. “The management of the hotel can reasonably foresee the consequence which may arise if the pool and its facilities are not properly maintained. The observance of safety requires good facilities and in addition, human supervision over those who use the pool. Allowing or designating a life guard to perform the duties of a bartender is a clear deviation from the duty of care. Mixing drinks does not augur well in preserving the safety of swimmers,” the Court observed.

The order said that the safety norms for water sports prescribed by the National Institute of Water Sports cast an obligation upon the person or entity which provides a swimming pool in a hotel to appoint a lifeguard for the pool. The lifeguard should not be given any other duties which would distract him/her from the work of a lifeguard, the order said. The Court also modified the order awarding compensation and allowed the complainants nine percent interest from the date of institution of the complaint.

Speaking to India Legal, KTDC Chairman M Vijayakumar, however, dismissed the security lapse by saying it was a thing of the past and had no relevance now except for the apex court order. “In fact, we had already complied with the NCDRC order and it was part of a routine procedure to file an appeal against the Commission’s ruling in the apex court.  We paid the compensation to the victim’s family on the orders of the Commission. And on the safety side, KTDC has taken all precautions ever since the unfortunate accident occurred,” he said.

He said KTDC had several high-value hotels and resorts which provided quality service to its customers. “Many tourists visit these places. Most of our guests are international and accustomed to receiving a high standard of service and security. What happened more than a decade back was an unfortunate accident and need not be raked up now as we have complied with all safety norms,” Vijayakumar claimed.

He said that the KTDC management had never shown any reluctance in complying with the NCDRC order, though they had moved the apex court with an appeal. “Filing an appeal before the apex court should not be seen as an attempt to sabotage the dispensation of justice to the victim’s family. It is a routine, customary practice for a PSU like ours to clarify its position in a court of law and come out clean.”

However, when contacted by India Legal, N Harikrishnan, General Manager of Hotel Samudra, said the accident occurred after the pool was closed for guests. “The pool is open from 6 am to 6 pm and the accident occurred around 7 pm. That is why there was no lifeguard,” he said. He also said KTDC ensured that lifeguards are deployed at the poolside whenever the pool is open for guests.

Pandalam Sudhakaran, former KTDC chairman, said the Court verdict should be treated as a lesson instead of addressing it like a setback.

“We cannot afford to have human casualties at KTDC-run hotels and resorts. People come here to relax. The security of every guest is of paramount importance to a hotelier. The responsibility is greater if it is run by a State-owned institution. Everybody concerned should learn a lesson from the incident,” he said.

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