In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court of India has quashed the FIR filed against Belgian citizen Peter Van Geit in connection with the tragic death of 13 trekkers during a forest fire at the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border in 2018. The ruling, delivered by a Division bench comprising Justices BV Nagarathna and Augustine George Masih, overturns the previous decision of the Madras High Court and brings closure to a case that has garnered widespread attention.
The incident in question unfolded during a trekking expedition organized through a website owned by Van Geit. Initially accused under Sections 304A (Death by negligence) and 338 (Grievous hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), Van Geit found himself entangled in a legal battle that questioned his responsibility for the tragic events that transpired.
The Madras High Court, in its earlier ruling, emphasized Van Geit’s duty as the owner to ensure that the trekking expedition adhered to the correct permitted path. Refusing to quash the FIR, the High Court underscored the need for a trial to determine Van Geit’s innocence in the matter.
However, the Supreme Court took a different stance, asserting that the trekkers’ deaths were a result of an “act of god,” namely, the forest fire, and not attributable to any negligence on Van Geit’s part. The bench highlighted the lack of criminal intent on the appellant’s behalf, noting that both the organizers and Van Geit were unaware of the unfolding forest fire.
In their judgment, the justices emphasized the accidental nature of the trekkers’ demise, absolving Van Geit of any culpability in causing their deaths. Citing the precedent set in State of Haryana v. Bhajan Lal, the Court concluded that the proceedings against Van Geit lacked merit and should be quashed.
The decision has been welcomed by Van Geit and his legal team, who have maintained his innocence throughout the proceedings. Speaking to reporters outside the courtroom, Van Geit expressed relief at the Court’s verdict, stating, “I am grateful for the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold justice in this matter. My thoughts remain with the families of the trekkers who lost their lives in this tragic incident.”
The ruling has broader implications for adventure tourism and trekking expeditions in India, raising questions about the legal responsibilities of organizers and facilitators in the event of unforeseen natural disasters. Experts anticipate that the judgment will prompt a reevaluation of safety protocols and risk management practices within the adventure tourism industry, ensuring greater accountability and transparency moving forward.
The case has also sparked discussions surrounding the interpretation of negligence laws in the context of natural calamities, prompting calls for legislative clarity to prevent similar legal disputes in the future. Critics argue that while the Supreme Court’s decision provides closure in this particular case, it underscores the need for comprehensive legal frameworks to address liability in situations where human actions intersect with natural forces.
As the dust settles on this legal saga, the focus now shifts to implementing measures that prioritize the safety and well-being of adventure enthusiasts while preserving the natural beauty and biodiversity of India’s wilderness areas. The Supreme Court’s ruling serves as a reminder of the delicate balance between adventure and responsibility, urging stakeholders to tread cautiously in their pursuit of outdoor exploration.
In the wake of this judgment, Van Geit and his supporters hope to turn the page on this chapter of legal uncertainty and resume their efforts to promote responsible tourism and environmental conservation. With the Supreme Court’s seal of approval, they are eager to embark on a new journey, guided by lessons learned and a renewed commitment to ethical adventure practices.