INTRODUCTION TO ABSOLUTE LIABILITY
The concept of absolute liability evolved in India after the case of M.C Mehta vs Union of India famously known as “Oleum Gas Leak case”. This is one of the historic cases in the Indian Judiciary. The Supreme Court, while deciding the
Oleum gas leak case of Delhi in 1986, found strict liability woefully inadequate to protect citizens’ rights in an industrialised economy like India and replaced it with ‘the absolute liability principle’
The case of M.C Mehta is based on the principle of strict liability but with no exception were given and the individual is made absolutely liable for his acts. It is based under this principle that the defendant won’t be allowed to plead defence if he/she was at fault as it was laid down in Ryland vs Fletcher case. After the Bhopal gas leak case many people lost their lives and are suffering from some of the fatal diseases through the generation and because of this there was an urgent need to develop a rule under strict liability which had no exceptions available to the defendant to escape from the liability.
The rule laid down by the Honourable Supreme Court of India is much wider with respect to the rules laid down the House of Lords in the case of Ryland vs Fletcher. Absolute liability does not require the cause of incident or the ‘consent’ of the facility’s operators to be known to make any enterprise liable. The liability is triggered by the mere escape of hazardous substances, irrespective of the cause. It was propounded by the Supreme Court that where an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and if any harm results to anybody on account of the accident in operation, the enterprise would be held strictly and absolutely liable to compensate to all those who are affected by the accident.
Under the absolute liability principle, the apex court held that a company in a hazardous industry cannot claim any exemption.
- It has to mandatorily pay compensation, whether or not the disaster was caused by its negligence. The court said a hazardous enterprise has an “absolute non-delegable duty to the community”.
- The principle of absolute liability is part of Article 21 (right to life).
No Need to Show Negligence
For them to be held responsible, there is no need to show they were negligent, or did something which caused the leak – the very fact that it happened from their plant is enough.
There are no exceptions or defences whatsoever to this ‘absolute liability’, which is what makes it makes it stronger than the legal standard that is generally followed in other countries
Scope of New Rule of Absolute Liability
– The Scope of new rule is very wider in all terms than old rule.
-Do not have any exception
-Very wide scope.
-Cover not only public negligence or fault but cover even personal injuries caused due to the negligence of neighbour.
-Now cover not only the occupier of land but also non occupier of the land.
ABSOLUTE LIABILITY :
A JOURNEY FROM STRICT LIABILITY
a) Doctrine of Strict Liability
In the curious case of strict liability, the aforementioned concept of ‘fault’ is absent, along with intention and motive. This is because there are many activities which are so dangerous that they constitute risks to persons and property, and responsibility must be borne by some person in case of any harm. The law allows the potentially harmful activities to be carried on for the sake of social utility, but only in accordance with safety measures and the doctrine of strict liability – called so because the liability arises even without any negligence on the part of the defendant.
The doctrine of “strict liability” evolved in Fletcher v. Rylands. In this case, Rylands hired contractors to build a reservoir on his land. While building it, the contractors discovered some flaws and left them unfixed. After some time, Rylands’s reservoir burst and flooded Fletcher’s adjoining mine causing £937 worth of damage. Blackburn, J. opined that any person who for his own purposes brings on his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief, if it escapes must keep it at his peril and if he does not do so, is prima facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape.
The Rule in Rylands v. Fletcher :
The rule in this case rests on the idea of foreseeability of damage; the person who is the source of damage is penalized for failing to avert the reasonably foreseeable damage.
Facts: Rylands and Fletcher were neighbours. Fletcher owned a mill, for the energy purposes of which he hired independent contractors and engineers to construct a water reservoir on his land. It so happened that there were old unused shafts under the site of the reservoir which the engineers failed to notice and block. Due to the negligence of the contractors, when water filled Fletcher’s reservoir, the water entered Rylands’ coal mine and caused huge loss, for that is where the shafts led. Subsequently, Ryland filed a suit against Fletcher. The defendant claimed that it was the fault of the contractors’, and the cause of damage was unknown to him.
Issues: The issue was very concise – Can the defendant be held liable, even if it was the act of someone else due to which an entity on his land escaped? It was notable because there was no negligence or intention on part of the defendant.
Judgment: The House of Lords rejected the plea of the defendant and held him liable for all the damages to Rylands’ mine. According to the rule set by this case, if a person brings on his land and keeps there any dangerous thing, a thing which is likely to do mischief if it escapes, he will be prima facie answerable to the damage caused by its escape even though he had not been negligent in keeping it there. Despite there being no fault or negligence on the part of the defendant, he was held liable because he kept some dangerous thing on his land and the said dangerous thing has escaped from his land and caused damage.
Essentials of Strict Liability
Certain qualifications were given to decide whether a liability is strict liability or not. Only after these essential qualifications are satisfied, can a liability can be termed as strict liability. These essentials, which are elucidated upon further on, are:
- Some dangerous thing must have been brought by a person on his land.
- The thing thus brought or kept by a person on his land must escape.
- It must be non-natural use of land.
This simply means that the defendant will be liable when the thing that escaped from his premises was a dangerous thing. The word ‘dangerous’ here implies that it is likely to do any sort of mischief if it escapes from the land. The collected water in Fletcher’s reservoir was the dangerous thing in the above mentioned case.
It is also essential that the thing causing harm must escape from the premises of the defendant, and it should not be within the reach of the defendant once it escapes.
3. Non-Natural Use Of Land
For the use to be non-natural, it must be some special use that brings with it increased danger to others. It must not be the ordinary use of land or use as is proper for the general benefit of community.
There are certain exceptions to this rule, which are:
1. Default of the Claimant
If the damage is caused solely by the act or default of the claimant himself, there is no remedy for him.
2 . Consent of the claimant
Where the claimant has expressly or implicitly consented to the presence of the source of danger and there has been no negligence on the part of the defendant, the defendant is not liable.
3 . Act of God
An event which directly and exclusively results from natural causes that could not have been prevented by the exercise of foresight or by the exercise of caution may be called an Act of God. Say, if the escape was unforeseen and without any human intervention, caused by some super natural force, then the defendant will not be liable.
4 . Statutory Authority
An act done under the authority of a statute exempts the defendant from tortious liability. However, the defence cannot be pleaded if the if there is any kind of negligence on the part of the defendant.
5 . Act of Third Party
The rule of strict liability doesn’t apply when the damages are caused due to the act of a stranger, i.e. a person who is not the servant nor is under the control of the defendant. However, due care must be taken by the defendant to avoid the damages if the act of the stranger can be foreseen by the defendant.
b) Doctrine of Absolute Liability
The principle of “absolute liability” was first ever applied by the Supreme Court of India in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (popularly known as Oleum gas leak case). In this case, oleum gas leaked from a fertilizer plant of Shriram Foods and Fertilizers, Delhi and caused damage to several people. A pending public interest litigation (PIL) by M.C. Mehta provided the opportunity to the Court to pass a series of orders dealing with the after-effects of gas leak. In this case, the Court disapproved the application of the principle of strict liability. The Supreme Court opined that:
“an enterprise which is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry which poses a potential threat to the health and safety of the persons working in the factory and residing in the surrounding areas owes an absolute and non-delegable duty to the community to ensure that no harm results to anyone on account of hazardous or inherently dangerous nature of the activity which it has undertaken. The enterprise must be held to be under an obligation to provide that the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity in which it is engaged must be conducted with the highest standards of safety and if any harm results on account of such activity, the enterprise must be absolutely liable to compensate for such harm and it should be no answer to the enterprise to say that it had taken all reasonable care and that the harm occurred without any negligence on its part.”