Death of 13 Trekkers Due to a Forest Fire: SC Quashes FIR against Belgian citizen saying it is a Natural Cause

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In a recent order, the Supreme Court (SC) bench comprising Justice B.V. Nagarathna and Justice Augustine George Masih quashed an FIR (First Information Report) against a Belgian citizen over the death of 13 trekkers due to a forest fire during a trekking expedition to Kurangani hills in Tamil Nadu in 2018. During the hearing, the bench observed that the trekking expedition was organized by Peter Van Geit (appellant), a Belgian citizen, who was the head of an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) and was in charge of facilitating persons interested in trekking. Based on this, the SC said that he had no role in causing the deaths that occurred due to the forest fire. The appeal mentioned before the top Court was against the August 2022 verdict of the Madras High Court refusing to quash the FIR and proceedings against Peter Van Geit. 

After pursuing the FIR and the charge sheet, the SC observed that the charges against the appellant were only under Section 304-A (causing death by negligence) and Section 338 (causing grievous hurt by act endangering the life or personal safety of others) of the Indian Penal Code. While hearing the matter, the bench observed that “We fail to understand as to how these Sections could have been invoked against the appellant herein in as much as admittedly the persons who were part of the trekking expedition died owing to a forest fire which is an instance of vis major.” It added, “No negligence could have been attributed to the appellant herein who only facilitated the organization of the trekking expedition. As already noted, the organizers as well as the appellant herein, and even the members of the trekking expedition were totally unaware of the forest fire as such.” 

Moreover, the SC said “Accidentally they were engulfed in the forest fire and they died by sheer accident and not owing to any negligence or any criminal intent attributable to the appellant herein. The appellant herein had no role whatsoever in causing the death of the trekkers who died due to a forest fire which is a natural cause.” While quashing the FIR and legal proceedings initiated against the appellant, the SC ordered, “In the circumstances, the order dated 30.08.2022 passed by the High Court is set aside. The F.I.R…and proceedings initiated against the appellant…are quashed.”