Emergence of Absolute Liability vis-à-vis the principle of Strict Liability: Prachi Gupta

Emergence of Absolute Liability vis-à-vis the principle of Strict Liability

Author: Prachi Gupta

Faculty of Law, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.

ISSN: 2582-3655

ABSTRACT

In certain circumstances, an individual may be liable for some damage caused even though he was not negligent on his part and had no such intentions of causing such harm, or even in some cases he may even have taken some measures to avert the same. This implies that in some situations the law recognizes ‘No Fault’ liability. In this context, the rules to be considered were laid down mainly in two cases, firstly the principle laid down by the House of Lords in Rylands v. Fletcher (1986)[1] and secondly, the judgment by the Supreme Court of India in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (1987).

The principle which was laid down in Rylands v Fletcher is commonly referred to as the ‘Rule in Rylands v. Fletcher’ or “Rule of Strict Liability”. Because this rule is bound by several exceptions it is more appropriate to refer to it the rule of Strict Liability, instead of the rule of Absolute Liability[2].

While drawing the principle in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India[3], Supreme Court itself referred the liability recognized in this case as ‘Absolute Liability’ and expressed that such liability will not be exposed to any exceptions as in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher[4].

In this paper the author will shed light on the need to evolve a new rule of Absolute Liability by the Supreme Court of India and why did we not follow the previous rule of English Common Law and the opinion of the Indian Judiciary on the same.

INTRODUCTION

The term ‘tort’ refers to the infringement of an individual’s civil rights by causing harm to another individual, such an infringement may be a consequence of intentional/unintentional activities, negligence or because of the violation of statutes.

The individual who commits the tort is called the tortfeasor. A tortfeasor sustains tortuous liability, implying that they will have to repay the victim for the damage that they have cause to them. Putting it otherwise, the tortfeasor who is found guilty and liable for compensation will be called for paying unliquidated damages (damages whose amount is not pre-determined, and elastic rather is decided by the court).

Liability arises in case of infringement of legal rights thereby causing loss or damage (injuria sine damno) as evident in the case of Ashby v. White[5], or in a situation where damage is caused but without the contravention of any legal right (damnum sine injuria) as evident in the case of Gloucester Grammar School Case[6].

Therefore, the purpose of making someone liable is either to get them back the status quo or to compensate at least through money/ damages to bring them near to the actual status as feasible. 

But there have been cases where the movement from the actual status is not caused directly because of the activity of the other person. Sometimes, even after taking due care, harm can be caused. In such cases, the liability that arises is either Strict Liability or Absolute Liability depending on the situation.

STRICT LIABILITY

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF STRICT LIABILITY

The doctrine of Strict Liability came into existence in two varied nuances in Britain and India. The perspective of the English legal community is exclusively legal while in India jurists looked at it with reference to social defence.

In England, this principle of no-fault liability in the form of strict liability was presented in the landmark case of Rylands, v. Fletcher[7]. It is one of the influential cases of strict liability. In this case, it is suggested that the person acts at his risk and oversees any accidental harm though neither he is negligent in his actions nor has any malicious intent. This rule of strict liability as pronounced in Rylands v Fletcher has an unquestionable historical background. The history of common law made it intelligible that the owner of the land was provided with four remedies against his neighbour, if he used his land in such a manner which caused injury and adversely affected the exclusive enjoyment of the property. In such a scenario one could bring a legal action of trespass against the neighbour if the injury caused was direct. Secondly, the remedy of nuisance was available wherein the primary object was abatement. Thirdly, he had the right of action for harm done by the spread of fire. And, the fourth and final remedy provided was in the case of cattle trespass. In these spheres of the legal battle of no – fault of the wrongdoer was not accepted as a defence. This was the four-fold background that paved the way for the declaration of the role of strict liability in England.

During English rule, Courts in India were adjured by Acts of Parliament[8] in the United Kingdom and by Indian enactments[9] to follow the principles of justice, equity, and good conscience if there was no distinct regulation of sanctioned law applicable to the controversy in the case filed. However, according to these Statutes, controversies associated with marriage, inheritance, succession, caste and religious usage among Hindus could be pronounced in accordance with their personal law and similarly, according to the Muslim Personal Law in the case of Muslims. Concerning cases filed for damages for tortuous liability, Courts confined themselves to the English Common Law insofar as it was consonant with justice, equity, and good conscience. An English Statute concerning with law of tort is not by its own force applicable to India but maybe followed here unless it is not accepted for the reason just stated. While most disciplines of law relating to Crimes, contracts, property, trusts, etc. have been codified, the law of tort remains uncodified in India[10].

The doctrine of no-fault liability was acknowledged and clearly articulated in England in Ryland v. Fletcher. This strict liability principle was accepted in India[11] but rarely implemented by the courts. With, the growth of science & technology and extensive usage of perilous chemicals brought the possibilities of mass disasters. The Bhopal gas tragedy is the perfect case that raises this issue. The catastrophes are old to history but mostly passed into fitful memory without a trail of legal consequences. One reason was that most of them were natural calamities, like the tsunamis, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions which were attributed to the acts of God; another that access to justice was refused to its victims due to ignorance, poverty and primitive legal remedies. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries came across man-made hazards capable of causing immense harm. It brought to surface the climate of accountability-private as well as public- to the victims of the hazards. Hence the novel pattern of liability was evolved in the form of “absolute liability”.

In India the landmark constitutional Bench decision of the Supreme Court in M.C. Mehta V. Union of India[12], has gone much beyond Rylands V. Fletcher in levying strict liability. The Court observed, “if the enterprise is permitted to carry on any hazardous or inherently dangerous activity for its profit the law must presume that such permission is conditional on the enterprise absorbing the cost of any accident arising on account of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity as an appropriate item of its overheads”. The court also perceived that this strict liability is not bound to any of the exceptions to the principle in Rylands V. Fletcher. [13]

RULE OF STRICT LIABILITY

“No-Fault Liability” is an alternative term that can be used to explain the concept of strict liability. This principle contrasts with the general principle of negligence in torts. If a plaintiff can prove a person’s negligence and he’s unable to dismiss the same, he is liable for the commission of torts under the head of negligence. There are also cases where the act of negligence is not considered. For example, if the defendant has bought a dangerous thing or object within their premises, but even after being cautious and taking a lot of care it escapes causing damages to any other individual. In such a situation, even though the owner was not at fault and took reasonable care would be held liable. This is regarded as “No-Fault Liability”. The principle of “No-Fault Liability” was acknowledged by the House of the Lords in correlation to the case of Rylands v. Fletcher, (1868): To have a better knowledge of this matter one should comprehend the facts in detail. The defendant (Fletcher) an owner of a mill hired engineers to build a reservoir to boost the water supply. During the renovations the encountered some shafts and passages underneath the ground, but they did not take notice of them and did not clog them. Subsequently, when the whole renovation was completed and the reservoir was put to work, the water stored in it started filling in the old shafts and passages. This resulted in besieging of the plaintiff’s (Rylands) coal mines which were adjacent to the reservoir. The defendant had no knowledge of such a mishap. Still, the court of law held the defendant liable for the consequences, though ruled out the criteria of negligence. The defendant here was liable under the principle of strict liability, even though if he would have been extremely careful it would have not been enough to release him from the scope of “No-Fault Liability”.[14]

To conclude all the statements some specific terms are required to be described in detail[15]:- 

  • Dangerous Thing: An object is given the status of a dangerous thing only when it causes harm to someone after letting itself free from the land of the person who had brought it. This has occurred around the globe in various tort suits whereby the principle of no-fault liability took place where “huge quantities of dangerous things[16] like electricity, gas, water, vibrations, sewage, explosives, harmful fumes, etc were kept.”
  • Escape: An object or a thing attains the position of “escape” when it sets itself free from the owner’s land and thereby causing harm to a person. Two case laws that would make things understandable are,

First Case Law: Crowhurst v. Amersham Burial Board[17] and Cheater v. Cater[18] and the second case is Read v. Lyons and Co[19].

The first case that is Crowhurst v. Amersham Burial Board and Cheater v. Cater it was regarding that when a person plants a venomous plant in his/her property and it grows increasing and getting out of control in the neighbours premises[20] and if the neighbours cow feeds on to it and falls sick then who shall be held liable. In this case, it was held that the neighbour who is the defendant, in this case, shall be held liable even though he has not done anything intentionally.

In the second case Read v. Lyons and Co, a lady working for shell manufacturing company suffered injuries as while she was working within the area of the factory, a shell accidentally exploded. But according to the judgment held in this suit filed by the plaintiff i.e. the female employee against the defendant company, the defendant was not liable with the rule of no-fault liability as the explosion had taken place within the premises of the defendant. The fact that there was no escape of dangerous things like a shell from the borderline of the company was entertained. Also, no proof was presented professing the defendant’s negligence[21].

  • Non-natural use of land: For household usage when the water is retained on the land it does not come in the class of non-natural use of land. But when the land is utilized for many people like a reservoir then it is considered that it is an unnatural use of the land (Rylands v. Fletcher). The utilisation of the land according to the prevailing social situations clearly state the difference between the natural and non-natural use of the land, for example, growing of trees on one’s land is a natural use of the land but not in the case if it is venomous which makes the usage of that land non-natural. Many times, disputes arise related to the natural use of the land, though in these circumstances the defendant is not held liable.[22]
  • Mischief: For proving the defendant liable for the non-natural use of the land and the escape of hazardous things causing damages and is mischievous in nature, the plaintiff is required to provide all the pertinent proves. This proves should be adequate to prove entirely that the damages caused are because of the non-natural use of the land by the defendant. It can be perceived in the case of Charing Cross Electric Supply Co. v. Hydraulic Power Co. (1914) 3 KB 772. In this case, the water had to be supplied to the industry by keeping the mains charged and maintaining the threshold pressure. Though, the defendant failed to do so causing harm to the pipeline because of which it busted from four different sites. This was proved by the plaintiff in the court of law with the help of the pertinent pieces of evidence and due to this, the defendant was held liable even though they were not at fault.[23]

ESSENTIALS FOR A TORT TO BE HELD UNDER THE DOCTRINE OF STRICT LIABILITY[24]

  • Non-natural use of land.
  • Escape of dangerous objects from land.
  • Mischief caused due to dangerous objects.

Some examples where this principle is applicable: –

  • Possession of dangerous structures e.g. buildings, ships, rails, etc.
  • Taming or possessing dangerous animals.
  •  Possession of dangerous substances like crackers, explosives, petrol, etc.
  •  Usage of land is termed to be non-natural due to activities being conducted on it.
  • Dangerous activities like blasting, mining, etc. are being done on the land.

EXPECTATIONS/DEFENCES TO THE RULE OF STRICT LIABILITY

  • DAMAGE CAUSED DUE TO NATURAL USE OF LAND

The case Giles v. Walker[25] is an illustration wherein it was proved in the court that if the defendant utilises his/her land for a natural cause then he/she shall not be liable under the rule of strict liability. In this case in the defendant’s premises, there was random growth of thistle plants. The defendant had no knowledge of such growth and that it was causing harm to the plaintiff’s land along with causing annoyance to him. The court here concluded the case in the favour of the defendant[26] as he was able to prove that the growth of this plant was natural in nature which in turn means that this is a natural use of the land. 

  • PLAINTIFF’S CONSENT

Peters v. Prince of Wales Theatre Ltd. Birmingham[27] the case can explain the notion of the defence of “Volenti non fit injuria”. This is a circumstance where the plaintiff has voluntarily given his/her consent for the presence of a hazardous thing and where a defendant has shown no carelessness then in that situation the defendant shall not oversee any undoing or any dangerous outcomes. Under the case stated above the plaintiff had absolute knowledge of the fact that the defendant was having a theatre and rehearsal room on his land and that it was near to the land which he was taking on rent. The theatre was provided with the water storage facility to be used in any kind of an emergency like a fire, but unfortunately it one day cracked and because of this the water escaped and reached the premises of the plaintiff’s shop and damaged the goods present in it. The plaintiff took legal action against the defendant to claim for the losses caused to him. This case was pronounced in favour of the defendant by the court as the plaintiff was aware of the water storage facility when he was taking the shop on rent.[28]

  • DEFAULT OF PLAINTIFF

Analysing the case of Ponting v. Noakes[29] one can perceive that if the plaintiff suffers losses only because of his own act he shall not qualify for any compensation. In this case, the horse owned by the plaintiff had reached to eat venomous plant which was growing in the defendant’s premises which caused the death of the plaintiff’s horse. Here the court pronounced the judgment in the favour of the defendant. The judgment was in the favour of the defendant as the plant was growing in the defendant’s premises and did not protrude in the plaintiff’s premises, but the horse intruded into the land of the defendant and ate the leaves of the venomous plant. In such a scenario the plaintiff himself was liable as his horse intruded the defendant’s land and so he did not qualify for the damage caused[30] .

  • THIRD-PARTY INTERVENTION

This defence can be clearly understood by the case law Rickards v. Lothian[31] wherein it was held that if any harmful consequence is caused due to a third party or any anonymous person, without any knowledge and control of the defendant then the defendant can’t be held liable for the same. Under this case, the waste pipeline of the washbasin in the defendant’s land was clocked by a third party, and the tap was left open. The overflowing water entered the premises of the plaintiff and marred his possessions. The Court of Law held that the defendant was not guilty as whatever happened, happened without his knowledge by some unknown person. However, the defendant was asked to be more cautious and aware in the future to check such damages[32].

  • ACT OF GOD OR VIS MAJOR

The rule of strict liability is not pertinent in the case of damages to anyone occurring due to the act of natural forces. This was validated in the case of Nichols v. Marsland[33], in this case, the defendant formed few artificial lakes by blocking a natural stream for several years. Due to heavy rainfall that very year the lake overflowed due to which the artificial barriers broke by the stream. This resulted in severe damages to the four bridges of the plaintiff. In this case, the court held that there was no negligence on the part of the defendant, and this was the act of god which was not in his control.

  • COMMON BENEFIT OF PLAINTIFF AND THE DEFENDANT

In the case Box v. Jubb[34], it was recognized that any damage caused due to the escape or the act of a dangerous object which was of the common use and benefit of the defendant and the plaintiff, the defendant shall not be held liable. The plaintiff filed a suit claiming for the loss incurred by him due to the overflowing of water from the defendant’s water tank. Both the plaintiff and defendant were at fault for the overflow as it was also the plaintiff’s reserve. Both the plaintiff and the defendant were residents of the same complex. The court did not hold the defendant guilty for the mishap as the water reserves were built keeping in mind the interest of all the residents of the complex which also include the plaintiff and the defendant.

  • STATUTORY AUTHORITY

Nobody is held liable for any act done by any authority under the government of the country. This can be understood by the case Green v. Chelsea Waterworks Co.[35] This works in defence to the action of torts. In this case, the land of the plaintiff was disrupted due to the shortcomings (and not negligence) on part of the defendant company, which was working under government orders for uninterrupted water supply. The court held that the company was not liable as it was doing its statutory duty[36] .

ABSOLUTE LIABILITY

Absolute liability came out as an inflexible rule than that in the case of Ryland v Fletcher, in the M.C. Mehta Vs. Union of India.[37] In this case, Supreme Court, mentioning the escape of venomous Oleum gas from a section of Shriram Food and Fertilizer Industries, held that there was a need to evolve the age-old 19th-century principle which was established in Rylands v Fletcher as it was insufficient to meet the demands of the modern world with hazardous and dangerous activities. It further held that any harm caused due to the escape of such harmful activities for example- the escape of toxic gas, the enterprise is absolutely liable to compensate all the affected people without any exceptions as were acknowledged in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher.

This principle of Absolute liability was acknowledged in the case of Charan Lal Sahu Vs. Union of India[38], Rajesh Shrouti Vs. Union of India[39] and Raj Kumar Keshwani Vs. Union of India[40]. The court referred this principle as ‘absolute and non-delegable’ in the aforementioned cases and held that the company/ enterprise cannot escape the liabilities by showing that they were not negligent at any point and had taken reasonable care.[41]

WHY WERE THESE ALTERATIONS IN THE 19TH CENTURY RULE NEEDED?

The Principal of Rylands v. Fletcher in the contemporary World

In a more realistic approach, the principle of Strict Liability is very little left as it has been exposed to a number of exceptions. The old principle with a lot of exceptions was incapable of making any person absolutely liable for his negligence. Thus, a more concrete rule was required for the same motive.

Indian Judiciary’s Perspective

In the M.C. Mehta case realising the necessity to amend the 19th Century rule of No-Fault Liability[42], the Supreme Court stated that “Moreover the principle so established in Ryland v. Fletcher of strict liability cannot be used in the modern world, as the very principle was evolved in the 19th century, and in the period when the industrial revolution has just begun, this two-century-old principle of tortuous liability cannot be taken as it is in the modern world without modifications”[43].

Justice Bhagwati also said that the principle of strict liability gradually developed in the 19th century, the period when the development of industries was in its initial phase, in the present contemporary world where hazardous or inherently harmful industries are essential to execute the development scheme, thus the 19th-century rule does not hold relevance in the today’s context. Moreover, this rule cannot be binding which was developed in a completely contrasting social and economic structure.[44]

In the case of K. Nagireddi V. Union Of India[45] the Andhra Pradesh High Court also stressed on the necessity to make changes to the old rule and stated that “In India, the general rule of Ryland V. Fletcher is accepted, though the principle is needed to be modified in its application to the Indian consideration.”

The term ‘Absolute Liability’, as misnomer. – Justice Blackburn mentioned the liability as ‘absolute’. However, in reality, it is strict and in no way ‘absolute’. Also very little of the principle of Rylands v Fletcher is remaining due to its exposure to a number of exceptions.[46]The latest trend is to curb the scope of the principle and to make it such that, it is near about similar to the modern theory that there will be no liability without any fault. In accordance with the aforesaid reasons, the term ‘absolute liability’ is a misnomer and the term most suitable is ‘Strict Liability’. [47]  

Some Reasons as to why the 19th Century Rule is not suitable in the Indian Perspective:

  • Industrialisation

In a rapidly growing economy like India, a rule which was evolved in the 19th century in accordance with the then economic and social structure cannot hold importance. Moreover, the rule was developed when the industrialisation process was in its initial phase and thus, cannot find its place in a highly developing economy like India.

  • The definition of ‘Reasonable use of land’ can vary from place to place

The 19th Century rule of Strict liability evolved in England. There the storage of water in a reservoir can be considered an unreasonable use of land but on the other hand, such usage of land for the purpose of agriculture and irrigation is quite normal in a country like India where agriculture is practiced by a large percentage of the population. Thus, such a rule cannot be directly implemented in India without certain modifications.

  • Too old to be used in the contemporary world

Things indeed must change with time to be on par to evolve with its surroundings. So is with Law and rules. A rule which was developed in the 19th century, in accordance with the conditions then, cannot be appropriate today. Therefore, it was required to come up with a principle applicable to the present scenario.

DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ABSOLUTE AND STRICT LIABILITY

 Strict and Absolute liability were differentiated by the rules that were laid down by the apex court if India in the case M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, where the bench explains as:

  • Firstly, only those enterprises and industries fall in the ambit of Absolute liability, which is involved in hazardous or inherently dangerous activities, thus the industries not falling in this category are bounded by the principle of Strict Liability.
  • Secondly, in case of absolute liability, there is no such prerequisite that the escape of a dangerous object from one’s own land, implying that the doctrine of absolute liability shall be pertinent to those injured within the land and outside the premises.   
  • Thirdly, the doctrine of Absolute Liability is not bound with any exception however the rule of strict liability was subject to some exceptions. The court of law in the case of Union of India V. Prabhakaran Vijay Kumar[48] was of the view that the principle of MC Mehta is not subject to any kind of exception.
  • Fourthly, the principle of Rylands v. Fletcher is applicable only to the unnatural use of land whereas the doctrine of absolute liability is applicable to even the natural usage of land. Even though a person keeps a dangerous object in his premises with the utmost care and is a natural usage of the land, he shall be held liable.
  • Moreover, the amount of damages is in accordance with the magnitude and financial potential of the enterprise. The apex court of India also stated that  “The enterprise must be held to be under an obligation to ensure that the hazardous or inherently dangerous activities in which it is engaged must be conducted with the highest standards of safety and security and if any harm results on account of such negligent activity, the enterprise/institute must be held absolutely liable to compensate for any damage caused and no opportunity is to given to answer to the enterprise to say that it had taken all reasonable care and that the harm caused without any negligence on his part”[49].

THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE SUPREME COURT

The Apex court of the country found that the old doctrine of Rylands v Fletcher was unfit for the contemporary world of science and technology and thus, replaced it with the rule of Absolute liability. The two most important judgments based on this decision are:

  • M.C. Mehta v. Union of India[50]

FACTS: On 4th and 6th December 1985 escape of oleum gas from a unit of Shriram Foods and Fertilisers Industries in Delhi, owned by Delhi Cloth Mill Ltd. Due to this escape of oleum gas, several people were affected and an advocate practicing in the Hazari Court had died.

CASE: A writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution was brought by way of Public Interest Litigation. The Supreme Court took an evolutionary decision that it was not bound to follow the old rule of Rylands v Fletcher, and it could come up with a new rule applicable to the socio-economic condition of India. It came up with the principle of ‘absolute liability’ as a component of Indian Law in preference to the principle of strict liability laid down in Ryland v. Fletcher. Bhagwati, C.J. observed in this matter –

“This, rule ( Ryland v. Fletcher ) evolved in the 19th century at a time when all these developments of science and technology had not taken place cannot afford any guidance in evolving any standard of liability consistent with the constitutional norm and the needs of the present-day economy and social structure. We do not feel inhibited by this rule which was evolved in the context of a different kind of economy. Law must grow to satisfy the needs of the fast-changing society and keep abreast of the economic developments, taking place in this country. As new situations arise the law has to be evolved in order to meet the challenge of such new situations. Law cannot allow our judicial thinking to be constrained by reference to the law as it prevails in England or for the matter of that in other foreign legal order. We in India cannot hold our hands back and I venture to evolve a new principle of liability which English courts have not done.”

Therefore, Supreme Court evolved a new principle creating absolute liability for damage caused by harmful objects. Following is the statement of C.J. Bhagwati which laid the doctrine of absolute liability:

“We are of the view that an enterprise, which is engaged in the 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-delegatable duty to the community to ensure that no harm results to anyone on account of hazardous or inherently dangerous 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 enterprise to say that it has taken all reasonable care and that the harm occurred without any negligence on its part.” 

 The Court also stated that the magnitude of damages to be paid within the capability of the institute, so that the same can have the deterrent consequence. The bench held that “We would also like to point out that the measure of compensation in the kind of eases referred to must be correlated to the magnitude and capacity of the enterprise because such compensation must have a deterrent effect. The large and more prosperous the enterprise, greater must be the amount of the compensation payable by it for the harm caused on account of an accident in the carrying on the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity by the enterprise. “The rule laid down in MC Mehta was also accepted by the Apex Court in Charan Lal Sahu v Union of India [51]The Court specified that this principle is ‘absolute and non-delegable’ and the institute cannot escape liability by showing that it has taken reasonable care and there was no negligence on its part. The  Court also explained the basis of this rule as follows: -“If an enterprise is permitted to carry on a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity for its profit, the law must presume that such permission is conditional on the enterprise absorbing the court of any accident (including indemnification of all those who suffer harm in the accident) arising on account of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity as an appropriate item of its overheads; and -The enterprise alone has the resource to discover and guard against hazards or dangers and to provide a warning against potential hazards”[52].

  • Bhopal Gas leak Tragedy[53]

In 1984, a catastrophe took place which was known to be the worst in those times. It took place at night on December 2/3 and is commonly known as the Bhopal Gas leak disaster. It was caused due to the leakage of Methyl Isocyanate and some other toxic gases from the Union Carbide India Ltd, (UCIL) at Bhopal which is a subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), an MNC registered in the US. In this incident about 2600 people died on the spot and lakhs of people were severely injured. Moreover, the death toll rose to 4000 after a few days. Several cases were filed against UCC in the United States District Court of New York by the attorneys of the deceased and many of the injured to claim damages. In accordance with the Bhopal Gas leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act 1985, the Union Of India took it upon itself the right to sue for damages on behalf of the deceased individuals and filed a case for the same. But all these cases were dissolved by Judge Keenan based on forum inconvenience. Judge Keenan on the 12th day of May 1986 held that the Judiciary of India must have the “opportunity to stand tall before the world and to pass judgment on behalf of its own people.”

After this judgment by Keenan Judge, the Indian Government in the using its power under the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985 filed a case in the Bhopal District which granted interim monetary damages for the sum of Rupees 350 crores. This sum of 350 crores was brought down to 250crores by an appeal filed by the UCC in the Madhya Pradesh High Court. This order was challenged in the apex court.

While the cases were unresolved in the New York District Court, a proposal of 350 million dollars had been put forward by UCC for the resolution of the claim. This attempt persisted when the dispute emerging out-of interim compensation ordered by the District Court of Bhopal came before the High Court.

Though the UCC and Union of India challenged the settlement done by the High Court of Madhya Pradesh, the Government of India assailed the to bring down the sum of interim damages and the UCC asserted that in a case for compensation where the grounds of liability was controversial, the Court was in no power to grant interim compensation. The dispute was resolved by the two orders dated 14th and 15th of February 1989. On 14th February 1989, the Apex Court recorded the resolution for damages between the groups in the case for 470 million U.S. Dollars and as a result, all civil and criminal proceedings against UCC and UCIL and their officers were closed. The terms of the settlement approved by Advocate General for the Union of India and the Counsel for the UCC were filed on the 15th day of February 1989.

The Settlement of the damages which was recorded by the Apex Court was assailed solely on two basis

(a) The criminal cases could neither have been compounded nor quashed nor could the immunity have been granted against criminal action, 

 (b) The magnitude of damages was too little.

As to the dismissal of criminal suits, it was held that “the quashing and termination of the criminal proceedings brought about by the orders dated 14th and 15th February 1989 required to be, and are, hereby reviewed and set aside.”

 As to the amount of damages it was contended that the doctrine laid down in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India should be embraced. It was held by the court that the “settlement cannot be assailed as violative of Mehta principle which might have arisen consideration in a strict adjudication. In the matter determination of compensation also under the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (PC) Act, 1985, and the Scheme framed thereunder, there is no scope for applying the Mehta principle since the tortfeasor, in term of the settlement- for all practical purpose – stand nationally substituted by the settlement and which now represent and exhausts the liability of the alleged hazardous entrepreneurs, viz. UCC & UCIL. We must all add that the Mehta principle can have no application against the Union of India inasmuch as requiring it to make good deficiency. If any, we do not impute to it the position of a joint tortfeasor but only of a welfare state”.

Indian Council for Environment Legal Action V Union of India[54]

 The Apex Court Of India applied the doctrine of MC Mehta case and released a judgment that “Once the activity carried on is hazardous or inherently dangerous, the person carrying on such activity is liable to make good the loss caused to any other person by his activity irrespective of the fact whether he took reasonable care while carrying on his activity is by far the more appropriate and binding.”

SCOPE OF ABSOLUTE LIABILITY

 The Scope of absolute liability is more than the previous rule.

 -It is not subject to any exceptions

-Not only public negligence comes under its ambit but also the personal damage caused due to the negligence of neighbour.

-It is not limited to the occupier’s premises  

CONCLUSION

The principle of Strict Liability contrasts with the general principle of negligence in torts. If a plaintiff can prove a person’s negligence and he’s unable to dismiss the same, he is liable for the commission of torts under the head of negligence. There are also cases where the act of negligence is not considered. If the defendant has bought a dangerous thing or object within their premises, but even after being cautious and taking a lot of care it escapes causing damages to any other individual. In such a situation, even though the owner was not at fault and took reasonable care would be held liable. This is regarded as Strict Liability. This rule was laid down by the House of Lords in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher in 1868. This rule was referred to as ‘Absolute Liability’ by J. Blackburn but Winfield found that it wasn’t the right term to be used as the rule of Strict liability was subject to a lot of exceptions and thus the term ‘Strict Liability’ was more appropriate to be used.

There was a shift from the principle of ‘Strict liability’ to ‘Absolute liability’ in the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, when the constitutional bench realized that the English Common law relating to such situations couldn’t be followed as such and that it needs some modifications. Thus, this resulted in the evolution of the doctrine of Absolute Liability.

This shift from Strict Liability to Absolute liability was of great significance as the rule of Rylands v. Fletcher was laid down at the time when the industries were in a developing phase. Moreover, at that time the socio-economic structure was completely different. With the changing socio-economic structure and a highly modern industrial world, the shift from Strict Liability to Absolute liability is justified.


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

[2] Winfield prefers to name it as “Strict” rather than “Absolute” liability because of the various exceptions to this rule. Winfield, Tort, 11th ed., p. 401; Winfield: “The myth of Absolute Liability” (1926) 42 L.Q.R. 37, 51.

[3] A.I.R. 1987 S.C. 1086.

[4] A.I.R. 1987 S.C. 1086, at 1099.

[5] (1703) 92 ER 126.

[6] (1410) Y B 11 Hen IV 27.

[7] (1868) L.R. 3 H.L. 330.

[8] Roscoe Pound, “A textbook of Jurisprudence”, IVth Edn. p.17.

[9] The earliest enactments were (1781) 21 Geo III, C 70 (1779) 37 Geo III, C 142 S 13, These words are repeated in later Indian Acts establishing civil courts in different provinces. Ilbert, Government of India, pp 56, 249-51.

[10] S.16(c) Madras Civil Courts Act,1873.

[11] Madras Rly Co. v. Zamidar of Karet nagar, 1874, 1 IA 364 Ram Aneya Charior v. Krishna Swami, 1907, ILR 31 Mad. 169 Kenaram v. Sristidhar, 1912,16 CWN 875 ShahyadAli v. Shyam Pratap, 1917, 41 IC 382 (Pat.).

[12] AIR 1987 SC 1086.

[13] Ansari & Shahabuddin, No fault liability A study of emerging trends [email protected]: No fault liability A study of emerging trends (1970), http://hdl.handle.net/10603/129463 (last visited May 10, 2020).

[14] Jaanisar Khan, “Food Safety, An Analysis of FDA Food Related Import Refusal Reports”, 39 EIB 32 (2017).

[15] S. Gabbi, & A. Alemanno, Foundations of EU Food Law and Policy: Ten Years of the European Food Safety Authority 111 (2013).

[16] Id., at p. 112

[17] 1878 4 Ex. D. 5.

[18] 1908 1 K.B. 247.

[19] 1947 A.C. 156.

[20] P. Border and M. Norton, “Safe eating: microbiological food poisoning and its prevention” POST-1997, available at: http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/briefing-papers/ POST-PN-104/safer-eating accessed.

[21] S. Gabbi, & A. Alemanno, Foundations of EU Food Law and Policy: Ten Years of the European Food Safety Authority 115 (2013).

[22] Id., at p. 116.

[23] Id., at p. 117.

[24] Id.

[25] 1890) 24 QBD 656.

[26] D. N. Saraf, The Law of Consumer Protection in India, 31 (1995).

[27] (1942) 2 ALL ER 533.

[28] Id., at Para 16.

[29] (1894) 2 QB 281.

[30] Ruchika Sharma, A Legal System for Appropriate Pesticide Use and Food Safety, 68 (2017).

[31] 1913 AC 263.

[32] Id., at Para 18.

[33]   1876 2 Ex D 1.

[34] 1879 4 Ex D 76.

[35] 1894 70 L.T. 547.

[36] Ruchika Sharma, A Legal system for appropriate pesticide use and Food Safety, 69 (2017).

[37]  (1987) 1 SCC 395; AIR 1987 SC 965.

[38]  AIR 1990 SC 1480.

[39] AIR 1990 SC 1480.

[40] AIR 1990 SC 1480.

[41] Kumar, Robin. “Rule of Absolute Liability with Special Reference to Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 a Critical Analysis.” [email protected]: Rule of Absolute Liability with Special Reference to Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 a Critical Analysis, Chandigarh, 1 Jan. 1970, hdl.handle.net/10603/245746.

[42] The rule was formulated by Blackburn, J. in Exchequer Chamber in Fletcher v Rylands, (1866) L.R. 1 Ex 265 and the same was approved by the House of Lords in Rylands v Fletcher, (1868) L.R. 3 H.L. 330.

Published.

[43] W.V.H Rogers, WINFIELD AND JOLOWICZ TORTS, 8th ed. 2010 pp. 248.

[44] ibid MC Mehta case

[45] AIR 1982 AP 119.

[46] St Anne’s well Browery v. Roberts. (1829) 141 LT at p.6, per Scrutton, L.J.

[47]  Ibid Dr. S.K.Kapoor.

[48]  (2008) 9 SCC 527: (2008) 2 KLT 700.

[49]  Ratanlal & Dhirajlal: Law of Tort 26th edition pg 520.

[50]  AIR 1987 SC 1086.

[51] AIR 1990 SC 1480.

[52] Ramaswamy Iyers: The Law of Torts: A Lakshminath, M Sridhar (tenth edition) year 2010.

[53] (1989)(1)SCC 674: AIR 1992 SC 248.

[54] AIR 1996 SC 1446.

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