absolute liability

RULE OF STRICT AND ABSOLUTE LIABILITY

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The idea of liability in torts depends on the fundamental rule that it is wrongful to hurt other people, regardless of whether particular protections are absent. In law, a man is said to be lawfully obligated when s/he is monetarily and legitimately in charge of something – a result that has unfolded because of the individual’s act or omission. This cause-effect relationship is pivotal for setting up liability, for, without a reason or source for the wrong, obligation, in general, cannot be affixed– the component of ‘fault’ is required to attribute damage and claim remedy.

Concept of  Strict Liability

The rule of strict liability first evolved in the famous case of Rylands v. Fletcher [1]. The principle stated by Blackburn, J. “The rule of law is that the 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;  if he does not do so is prima facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape.”[2] The undertakers of the action need to compensate for the harm caused irrespective of any carelessness on their part. This is often compared to negligence as both of them are based on foreseeable harm but the main difference lies in that the concept of negligence comprehends that if the basic precautions were taken, the defendant could not be held liable. Such a condition is not applicable in case of strict liability. The essentials of strict liability are the presence of a dangerous substance, non-natural use of the land and escape of that substance from the defendant’s property. There are certain exceptions to the rule of strict liability. These include ‘Plaintiff’s own fault’, ‘Vis Major’, ‘Act of the third party’ and ‘Consent of the plaintiff’.

Landmark Cases on Strict Liability

Rylands v. Fletcher (1868) L.R. 3 H.L. 330

This was the first case that established the rule of strict liability in the 19th century.

Facts: Rylands owned a mill and built a reservoir on his land to supply water to the mill. He employed contractors and engineers to construct the reservoir. In the course of the construction, these employees learned that it was being built on top of an abandoned coal mine but didn’t convey that to Rylands. After the completion of the reservoir, it broke and flooded the adjacent coal mines of Fletcher which caused damage to his property and he brought a suit against Rylands.

Issue: Whether a person who disrupts the natural state of a property by lawfully bringing something onto his land that, if it escapes, can potentially do harm, is strictly liable for any harm caused by the escape?

Held: The court held that Rylands built the reservoir at his risk and so any damage caused in its course, he shall be held liable for the accident and its escape.

  • The defendant brought something onto his land: The defendant brought water to his land which was not something that naturally occurs there like rocks or thistles.
  • There was a non-natural use of land: The water was the non-natural element since it didn’t naturally occur there.
  •  Escape: The water from the reservoir escaped from the defendant’s land to the plaintiffs land which caused him to suffer damages.

Thus the case fulfilled all the ingredients that constitute to strict liability. Rylands was held liable for the damages caused to Fletcher’s property and was compensated for the physical harm caused to his land.

Read v. J Lyons [1947] AC 156

Facts: The plaintiff (Read) was employed by the Ministry of Defence, to inspect the defendant’s (Lyons) weapons factory. During the course of her employment, a shell exploded that killed one and injured the appellant and others. No negligence was alleged and the company worked as agents of the mystery.

Issues: Whether the manufacturers of such high shell explosive factories are under a ‘strict liability’ to prevent them from exploding and causing harm to others on and off the premises.

Held: The rule of strict liability, as stated in the case of Rylands vs Fletcher, mentions the two essential requirements for the rule to apply, namely the non-natural use of land by the defendant and the escape of something harmful from the land that can cause damage. The Judge in the present case, Viscount Simon, held that the “escape” was an important part of the two necessary conditions on which the rule depended. Thus, in this case, there was no escape from the defendant’s land as the explosion had injured the plaintiff inside the premises and hence the rule of strict liability cannot be applied. The judgement was given in favour of the defendant due to the missing element of “escape” of the dangerous material. There was no cause of action on which the plaintiff could succeed. Therefore no compensation was received by the plaintiff in this case.

Concept of Absolute Liability

The concept of Absolute Liability, in simple words, can be explained as the principle of strict liability minus the exceptions. The rule of Absolute Liability was first evolved in India with the landmark case of M.C Mehta v. Union of India [3].The court laid down the rule as “Where an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and harm results to anyone on account of an accident in the operation of such  hazardous or inherently dangerous activity resulting in the escape of the hazardous material, the enterprise is strictly and absolutely liable to compensate all those who are affected by the accident and such liability is not subject to any exception available in the rule laid down in Rylands v. Fletcher.” A person can be made liable without any fault of his according to the two rules and hence is known as the principle of “no-fault liability”.

Landmark Case on Absolute Liability:

M.C Mehta v. Union of India AIR 1987 SCR (1) 819

In this case, the Honourable Supreme Court of India modified the rule of strict liability and came up with a more stringent rule of absolute liability.

Facts: It originated in the aftermath of the oleum gas leak from the complex of Shriram Food and Fertilizers Ltd. which was engaged in the manufacture of dangerous chemicals, at Delhi. One person died and few were hospitalized in the incident. M.C Mehta, a social activist, filed a PIL under Articles 21 and 32 and sought closure and relocation of the Acid Plant which was located in the thickly populated area of Delhi.

Issues: 

  1. Whether such hazardous industries should be allowed to operate in such areas and if they are allowed, whether some regulatory mechanism be evolved.
  2. How would the liability and compensation be determined in such situations?
  3. Whether ‘Shriram’ would be considered as a ‘state’ under Article 12 so as to hold it liable under Article 21 for the infringement of Right to life.

Held: The rule of absolute liability was applied in this case, which was stated as “Where an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and harm results to anyone on account of an accident in the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity resulting, for example, in escape of toxic gas, the enterprise is strictly and absolutely liable to compensate all those who were affected by the accident and such liability is not subject to any of the exceptions that work under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher.”

  • Presence of hazardous activity: Since the organization was involved in the production of caustic chlorine which is a hazardous industry as it involves the use of oleum gas which is dangerous in nature.
  •  Hazardous activity resulting in harm: The leak of the oleum gas resulted in the death of a person and hospitalization of several others. The court noted that Shriram had been negligent in the operation, maintenance of the plant and installing safety measures.

The court appointed an expert committee to check up on the necessary requirements for the plant to run without causing such destruction again. It directed Shriram Foods and Fertilizers Ltd. to compensate the victims of the accident with a sum of Rs. 20 lakhs.

WHY WAS THERE A NEED TO INTRODUCE ABSOLUTE LIABILITY?

The Oleum gas leak [4] case was closely preceded by the infamous Bhopal gas leak which resulted in a lot of panic in the capital. Bhagwati CJ., noted that a nineteenth-century rule was not feasible to be applied in the present time with high level of industrialisation taking place and the economy going through such a drastic change. As these hazardous industries could not be done away with since they contribute majorly in improving the quality of life and to the economic development, there needed to be a change in the laws that safeguard the people from suffering and in turn eliminate the risk to the community because of harm caused by them. Such absolute protection was not provided by the rule of strict liability as there were certain exceptions to it which most of the times got the defaulting parties out from being liable for the consequences in such cases. In another case[5], Sellers L.J. contended that it was only rational to infer that the Court of Appeals considered the rule to have no useful function in modern times as “the defendant’s liability could simply have been placed on the defendants’ failure of duty to take reasonable care”. Thus the decline of the rule in Rylands vs. Fletcher[6] left the individual injured by the activities of industrial society virtually without adequate protection. Hence, it was concluded that this principle was contrary to the present judicial philosophy of social justice. This brought on the shaping of the principle of absolute liability which kept no consideration for any of the exceptions provided in the previously followed rule and a clear distinction between them was laid down. The clause stating the need for the hazardous thing to escape was also made not necessary under this new principle, hence making it applicable for all those affected both inside and outside the premises.

APPLICATION OF STRICT AND ABSOLUTE LIABILITY BY THE INDIAN JUDICIARY

Doubts about the act that was formulated for the protection of the victims of the tragedy in Bhopal were raised by Mishra CJ. in the case of Charan Lal Sahu v. Union of India as to the correctness of the rule. It was said that the Oleum gas leak case was an obiter. These doubts were not accepted by the court in the case of Indian Council for Environmental Legal Action v. Union of India[7] and the M.C Mehta case was not called to be obiter. In the Indian Council case the court, keeping in sight the absolute liability principle, put a fine of Rs. 38.385crores on the defaulting company (HACL) with compound interest since 1997, imposing the “polluter pays” principle according to which polluter must pay for the damage done to human beings and the environment.

In a case[8] where the plaintiff’s husband died as a result of getting electrocuted because of gross negligence on the part of the Kerala State Electricity Board (K.S.E.B), the Kerala HC observed that KSEB was involved in such a dangerous activity that it was absolutely liable for any damage caused because of it. In Union of India v Prabhakaran[9], the court rejected the plea of the Railways and held that the “contributory negligence” in the part of the plaintiff’s wife was not to be considered in such cases where the railways had a strict liability, hence making the State and it’s officials liable. The apex court discussed the doctrine of strict liability in the case of M.P. Electricity Board v. Shail Kumari & Ors[10], where the Electricity Board was ordered to compensate for the electrocution of one cyclist because of a livewire that got snapped and fell on a public road which was partially inundated with water.

The rule has also been considered by the courts in a number of cases to decide the appropriateness, legality and amount of damages to be paid by the defendants, whether aggravated or punitive damages be awarded. Thus, it can be seen that these principles have been recognized and applied by the Indian Judiciary to a great extent even in present cases.

CONCLUSION

As understood by the explanations given above, it is obvious that the rule of absolute liability today is extremely essential in India in order to make sure that the ever growing number of industries dealing with hazardous substances and thus carrying out inherently dangerous activities, keep a check of the basic norms of safety of their employees working in such conditions as well as of the people living in and around that area by holding them fully liable for any damage caused to anyone because of such activities. It is important to observe the change in the judiciary’s view on how the previously held notion that public industries carrying out such work should not be held liable under such circumstances as they work for public benefit, has changed with time and now they are held equally liable as the private industries are. The present structure of the principle has so far turned out to be sufficient in regulating these practices and so there is not an immediate need for reform although a better recognition of it by the legislation is required.

ENDNOTES

[1] (1868) L.R. 3 H.L. 330.

[2] Rylands v. Fletcher (1868) L.R. 3 H.L. 330.

[3] AIR 1987 SCR (1) 819.

[4] Ratanlal and Dhirajlal, THE LAW OF TORTS, 26th ed., pp.520-521

[5] Dunne vs. North Western Gas Boards (1964) 2 QB 806.

[6] See supra note 2.

[7] AIR 1996 SC 1446.[8] Chellamma v Kerala State Electricity Board, WP(C).No. 12935 of 2008. 

[9] (2008) 9 SCC 527.

[10] (2002) 2 SCC 16.

[11] Absolute Liability in India Necessity and Reforms, available at: http://www.kayadepundit.com/article/ABSOLUTE%20LIABILITY%20IN%20INDIA%20NECESSITY%20AND%20REFORMS.pdf [12] Recent Decisions: Products Liability: Strict Liability in Tort Applied to Both Automobile Manufacturer and Retailer, available at: http://docs.manupatra.in/newsline/articles/Upload/2D83321D-590A-4646-83F6-9D8E84F5AA3C.pdf


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