THE DOCTRINE OF ABSOLUTE LIABILITY

The rule of Absolute Liability a legal principle meaning if any individual/people is/are engaged in an activity which comes under the nature of inherently Hazardous and Dangerous and if any damage is caused to any person while carrying out of such activities, then the person carrying out such activities will be held absolutely liable. Under this rule the liability is imposed upon any person or corporation or any acts done by third or the acts which affect public at large.

THE DOCTRINE OF ABSOLUTE LIABILITY

Why was the rule necessary to be formed in the society?

Before this rule, the doctrine of strict liability was followed which states that when someone is involved in keeping dangerous or hazardous substances on his premises, he may be held liable if the same substances cause any damage to other people.

This principle was developed in the case of Rylands v Fletcher (1868).

  • In this case the defendants employed independent contractors to build a reservoir on their land. During the construction the contractors found mines that were no longer in use and they did not cover them appropriately. After the construction the water filled in the reservoir flooded through the mine shafts into the plaintiff’s property in the adjoining land.
  • Here it was held that if any person who keeps any hazardous or dangerous substances, escapes and damages other people’s property will be liable.

Both the provisions make the defendant liable for involvement in any dangerous or hazardous activity but the difference lies in the fact that in the rule of strict liability there are certain exceptions or you can say defenses for the defendant such as-

  • Plaintiff’s default– If the plaintiff suffers damage by his own by intruding into defendant’s property.
  • Act of God– an act which is impossible for a human to cause. Such incident happens due to naturals causes such as Earthquakes, Tsunami’s etc.
  • Act of the third party– this rule does not apply on any damage caused to the plaintiff by any third party meaning any person which is under control of the defendant.
  • Volunti non fit injuria- meaning any situations where plaintiff has voluntarily consented to the risk, then the defendant will not liable.

Application of the rule of absolute liability

It was earlier debated that strict liability rule is not a fully functional one  as there are activities which cause huge and permanent damage on their surroundings and such ones needs to be punished absolutely. Due to exceptions certain corporations escaped this scope.

To avoid this, the rule of absolute liability was introduced in the case of M.C Mehta v Union of India which was decided on December 20, 1986 , 1987 SCR (1) 819, AIR 1987 965.

Brief facts of the case:

  • Initially there was a writ petition filed by M.C Mehta, a social activist lawyer in which he sought relocation and closure of Shriram industries which was engaged in manufacturing hazardous substances and located inside a densely populated area of Kirti Nagar.
  • The petition was pending there was a leak of Oleum gas on 4th December 1985  from one of its units due to which an advocate practicing at Tis Hazari died and several others were affected by the incident.

Issues that were raised in this case were:

  • Should such dangerous industries be allowed to operate in such areas?
  • Liability and amount of compensation how be determined?

The court observed that total ban on the following industry will impede development and would result in a massive unemployment of about 4000 workers

Further the court also said that industries cannot absolve themselves from taking the responsibility of such incidents on the ground that there was no negligence on their part and they took all necessary precautions, subsequently the court applied no-fault liability in this case.

Justice Bhagwati in MC Mehta v. Union of India stated that “with the developing industrial sector, the 19th-century rule of strict liability as per Rylands v. Fletcher cannot be taken into consideration without changing it as per the present requirement.”

THE DOCTRINE OF ABSOLUTE LIABILITY

The rule was also later on applied in the Bhopal Gas tragedy case (gas leak case)

  • December 2, 1984, there was an accident in the Union carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal it was estimated that approximately 30 tons of Methyl Isocyanate was leaked and caused a massive harm to residents in the surrounding areas. The company argued that the accident was caused due to a third party and it cannot be held liable for the accident.

During the course of this case the judgement in M.C. Mehta v Union of India was followed and the company was held liable.

CONCLUSION

The rule of absolute liability was a much needed tool for the society as it punished the people/corporation regardless of any arguments by their side and does prevent them to take up any defense by certain exceptions present in strict liability.

This rule was a penultimate rule of liability as in modern days many industries are involved into dangerous and hazardous activities such as nuclear energy, hazardous gases etc.

The case of M.C Mehta v Union of India is said to be revolutionary case for environmental protection.

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