Who would have thought that accessing a bank locker would turn into a dangerous expedition, especially for senior citizens? Last week, we carried a report on how an 80-year-old diabetic man spent an entire night
in Union Bank’s locker room due to the negligence of the Bank's staff. He survived the traumatic ordeal and was discovered only by chance after his family lodged a police complaint. That is why the story made headlines around the country.
In Mumbai, DS Ranga Rao, 71, a retired intelligence bureau (IB) officer has been fighting a dogged battle with State Bank of India (SBI) to even acknowledge the negligence which caused him to suffer a fall from an unsuitable ladder, leading to severe injuries and medical treatment. Four months later, he needs a walker for support and regular sessions of physiotherapy.
Mr Rao’s mistake was hoping that the Bank will treat its customers right or that the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) much-touted and revived central banking ombudsman would look at customer issues with compassion. In fact, both SBI and the banking ombudsman rejected his claim for compensation, based on what Mr Rao alleges are false claims by the Bank.
On 3rd December, Mr Rao and his wife visited SBI’s Jekegram branch at Thane, after almost 2.5 years of COVID restrictions. The locker room had a shaky, unstable ladder (with wheels without brakes) which skidded, causing him to fall and sustain major fractures to his thigh (femur bone) and wrist, leading to multiple surgeries and hospitalisation.
After his wife raised an alarm, the Bank staff rushed to help him. An ambulance was called at Mr Rao's cost to send him to the hospital. According to the doctors, the disability he suffered due to the fall is permanent and he will have to live with it for the rest of his life.
SBI, Jekegram branch, says Mr Rao, did not have any contingency plans or standard operating procedures (SOPs) to deal with such situations. They were not even equipped to offer first-aid nor the training to rush patients to hospital. Logically, SBI, India’s largest bank ought to have an insurance cover for such rare contingencies and must accept responsibility for an accident and injury to a customer on its premises—especially when it was due to its own faulty infrastructure. Instead, the Bank refused to acknowledge any responsibility or offer a compensation.
Mr Rao has spent over Rs6 lakh for surgery, OPD treatment and physiotherapy in the past few months. Under guidance from Moneylife Foundation, he followed the procedure of filing a complaint with the branch, escalating it to the nodal officer and then taking it up with the banking ombudsman (BO) office. At each stage his claim and contention was rejected without even the effort to speak to him. Shockingly, this happened even at the RBI’s new central ombudsman level, which claims to be a much improved version of the previous system.
In fact, the office of BO told him that his "Complaint is rejected under Clause 16(2)(a) of the Reserve Bank - Integrated Ombudsman Scheme, 2021 : 'In the opinion of the Ombudsman, there is no deficiency in service'.”
Picture of the ladder which has now been fitted with brakes
The BO's response says: “In your complaint, you have sought reimbursement of all medical expenses less insurance and CGHS offered and also suitable compensation for mental agony etc. caused to you on account of an accident within the bank’s premises. The bank has informed that they have total of 1235 lockers and approximately 10 to 12 customers daily visit to operate their locker. The bank has never received any complaint/suggestion about the ladder placed in the locker room nor it has received any request from you, being a senior citizen, to change the locker, prior to the incident. The bank has also informed that they are arranging locker which is suitable to your height and age, after due documentation. As such, no deficiency is observed against the bank.”
But the fact is that Mr Rao fell off the ladder inside the Bank’s premises and was rushed to hospital from the branch—basic facts that are undeniable but apparently of no relevance to the RBI ombudsman. Further, there is a good chance that the condition of infrastructure would have deteriorated in the two years when access was restricted due to COVID. More importantly, Mr Rao has now learnt that SBI has since modified the ladder and fitted it with brakes to prevent skidding (after what happened in his case).
To add insult to injury, the RBI ombudsman has decreed the complaint closed under a clause that is non-appealable. His only choice is to approach a court or consumer forum.
Property-owners and non-owner residents have a responsibility to maintain a relatively safe environment so that people who come to the property don't suffer an injury. This responsibility is known as ‘premises liability’, which holds property-owners and residents liable for accidents and injuries that occur on their property.
According to laws in several countries, a customer is regarded as an invitee. An invitee is someone who is invited to the property of another, such as a customer in a store or a bank. This invitation usually implies that the property-owner/possessor has taken reasonable steps to assure the safety of the premises.
Mr Rao’s complaint has now been escalated to RBI deputy governor, Rajeshwar Rao, who says he will look into it. SBI’s attitude exemplifies the attitude to its customers and the lack of enforceable legal liability for the well-being of customers while on their premises.