This article is written by Ruhi Kanakia, a student from ILS Law College, Pune, pursuing B.A.LLB. The article explains the origin, development, and the present understanding of the concept of Absolute Liability in the country’s legal system.
The evolution and origin of a legal concept cannot be better examined and studied, than through understanding the evolution of the principle of ‘Absolute Liability’. The said principle is a tortious, civil law concept that has morphed into the realm of constitutional and environmental law principles. In analyzing the evolution of absolute liability, a detour into the concept of strict liability is mandated, as the former principal garners its foundational backing from the latter. Absolute Liability, in essence, refers to the principle of finding an individual engaged in some hazardous/dangerous act, as a result of which they cause harm/wrong to the environment and public, absolutely liable for their acts and actions, irrespective of their intent to commit a wrong, and/or knowledge that their acts and actions would lead to the commission of a wrong. The concept was developed over a period of time, from myriad precedents, and other relative tenants of tort law, which make the principle of absolute liability as distinguished and independent as it stands today.
Rule of strict liability
In pursuance of breaking down the origin of absolute liability, a crucial leg of this journey would be to understand the rule of ‘Strict Liability’. Absolute Liability is often described as Strict Liability- (minus) the exceptions of Strict Liability. The justification of such a formula would be to understand the concept of Strict Liability at its core. The understanding of this principle was first garnered in 1868, in the House of Lords – “We think that the rule of the law is that the person who for his own purposes brings on his lands and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it in 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.” This crucial judgment in Rylands v Fletcher is where both the principles of ‘no-fault liability’ were established, and from thereon became independent tenants of law.
Ryland vs. Fletcher
Statement of Facts
- The defendants, who owned mills in Lancashire, constructed a reservoir on their land, which lay across from the land of the plaintiff, who had an active coal mine functioning thereon.
- The defendants employed a contractor, who, without knowing and without due diligence, constructed the reservoir on top of make-shift shafts and an abandoned, unstable mine.
- Through a filled-in shaft of an abandoned mine, water from the reservoir seeped into the coal mine across the defendants’ land, onto the plaintiffs’ property, thus flooding and destroying the active mine on his land.
Issues raised in the Court
- Whether the defendants were liable for negligence themselves irrespective of the proof negligence on their own part, or on the part of anyone employed by them to make the reservoir?
- Whether they were liable for the negligence of the contractor engaged by them to extract the reservoir?
The Decision by the Trial Court
The trial court held that the defendants were not aware of the broken filled-in shaft of the abandoned mine which was the source of the flooding, and thus the defendants were not held liable for any damage caused to the plaintiff. The trial court, therefore, passed the judgment in favour of the Defendants.
The Decision by Exchequer Chamber
On the appeal filed by the plaintiffs in 1866, the case then was put through to the Exchequer Chamber for its decision on the matter. The Chamber reversed the decision made by the lower court and held that a ‘strict liability’ was imposed on the defendants. However, in making this decision, the term ‘strict liability’ in that period had no standing in the tort law. It did not fit into the tenants of Trespass, Nuisance, Negligence, etc. Thereafter, Blackburn J compared the offence to the offence of trespass involving cattle and dangerous animals and declared that any individual who knowingly keeps a dangerous article on their land, must do so at their own cost and consequence, and be prima facie answerable if such article causes any damage whatsoever.
The Decision by the House of Lords
In 1868, when the defendants appealed to the House of Lords, the court reaffirmed the judgment of the Chamber, but with some minor adjustments. Lord Cairns ruled that the principle of Strict Liability as laid down by Blackburn J should only be applied to the ‘non-natural’ use of one’s land, as distinguished from ‘any purpose’ as mentioned in the previous decision. Lord Cairns shifted focus from the tendency of water to escape from the defendant’s land to the unnatural use of the defendant’s land of setting up a reservoir near a coal mine.
Strict Liability is applied in an event that harm occurs as a result of the miscarriage of any lawful activity, that, considering its manner and place of use, is unusual, extraordinary, or inappropriate. Therefore, by taking into account the ratios stated in the Chamber and the House of Lords, we can state that for an act to amount to strict liability, the following preconditions should be fulfilled:
- The individual has brought something onto their land.
- The individual has made a ‘non-natural’ utilization of such item on the land.
- The item was such as is likely to cause a nuisance if it escapes from the said land.
- The item did escape and caused damage and repercussions owing to sich non-natural use of it on the land.
Essentials of strict liability
From the ratio decidendi of the above-mentioned case, as held in the Court of Exchequer and the House of Lords, the rule of ‘Strict Liability’ was nurtured, which then became a full-fledged legal principle, based on the prerequisites as stated in the case of 1868. For ‘Strict Liability’ to be legally enforceable on an action, the action has to fulfil certain characteristics, which make it eligible to be classified as an act that would call for the imposition of strict liability.
The first requirement for this principle to be applicable is the presence of a dangerous thing/item/object on the land. As per the principle, any item that can escape from the land and is likely to cause damage to another person or property would be considered falling within the ambit of a ‘dangerous thing’. As in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher stated hereinabove, the dangerous thing present would be the large quantity of water stored in the reservoir. Any such substance, the escape of which can cause danger to others, including gases, explosives, chemicals, etc. would be considered as a dangerous thing.
Escape of such dangerous thing
The second prerequisite for an act or action would be the escape of such dangerous article, from the land whereon it is brought. The dangerous substance should leave the premises of the individual and escape from its containment so as to cause danger to the person or property of another. However, in case the thing escapes and something happens to the plaintiff due to their own fault, then the individual owning such a dangerous thing is not held liable.
In the case of Read v. Lyons and Co., Read was an employee with the defendant company, which was an ammunition manufacturing company. While she was working, a shell manufactured by the company burst, and she suffered many injuries. It was held that the defendant was not liable, because the dangerous item (i.e. the shell) did not escape the premises of the defendant, and thus the principle was not applicable in the situation. Therefore, the actual escape of the dangerous item from the premises of its owner is required for the principal to apply.
Non-Natural Use of Land
The third precondition of Strict Liability is the non-natural use of land. In the above-mentioned case of Rylands v. Fletcher, The large quantity of water in the reservoir resulted in the non-natural use of land. For the use to be considered as a ‘non-natural use’, it must be for an extraordinary purpose, followed by an increased danger to people and property.
In Sochacki v. Sas, the Court held that a fire in the fireplace is an ordinary use of the land and if this fire spreads outside the premises, strict liability as a concept would not be applicable therein. The supply of electricity through lines, cooking gas through pipes, etc. are natural uses of land, but if an individual stores nitrous oxide in a large quantity in his home, that would be considered as a non-natural use of his land. Therefore, the use of the thing must be in such a manner, that it is not used on that land in the ordinary course of life.
Exceptions to strict liability
In pursuance of gaining a deep understanding of the concept of Absolute Liability, a brief explanation of the exceptions of Strict Liability can help us study the concept in an easier manner, since, as stated hereinabove, Absolute Liability is the difference of Strict Liability and its exceptions.
Act of God
Any event that exclusively and/or directly occurs as a result of natural causes that cannot be foreseen and therefore prevented using due caution and care, is known as an ‘Act of God’. Keeping the background of Strict Liability in mind, an Act of God would be in play in an event that the ‘dangerous thing’ as explained hereinabove, has escaped from the land by a means that is unforeseen, and without any intervention by the individual owning such thing. Such escape could have been caused by an external supernatural force, such as earthquakes, tides, floods, storms, and other natural calamities that cannot be predicted by the individual.
An example of such an exception is seen in Nicholas v. Marsland wherein the defendant Marsland built a dam on a natural stream flowing into his own land, so as to create an artificial lake on his land. However, the land experienced heavy rains which caused the dam walls to give way to the pressure, thus washing away the bridge of the plaintiff. The court held that the defendant was not strictly liable in this case, as there was no way that Marsland could have predicted the severity of the rains and protected against it.
Consent Of The Plaintiff/ Plaintiff’s own fault
‘Volenti non-fit injuria’, a phrase is often seen as an exception to tort law, is a valid and accepted exception to Strict Liability as well. It means that if the plaintiff has voluntarily participated in an act, knowing it to be dangerous and risky, the plaintiff cannot sue the defendant in case any damage therein occurs. For explanation, if the plaintiff and defendant are neighbours, who share a water source on the defendants land, and the damage is caused to the plaintiff due to that common source, the defendant cannot be held liable in court since the plaintiff has consented and actively participated in the use of such common water source on the defendant’s premises.
Act of Third Party
When the escape of the dangerous thing is caused by the acts of a Third Party, the rule of Strict Liability does not apply. A stranger/third party in this context is defined as a person who is not the servant, agent, or any other party in control of the defendant. However, if the act of such a third party and/or stranger can be reasonably predicted by the defendant, this exception shall not come into play.
In Box v. Jubb, the defendant owned a reservoir which overflowed as a result of a blockage in the drain by a third party unknown to the defendant. The court held that the defendant would not be liable for the damage caused to the plaintiff since he could not reasonably predict such blockage.
In the presence of a prevailing statute that mandates the act which is being subject to scrutiny, the rule of Strict Liability cannot be applied to such an act. Any act that is carried out in furtherance of authority or statute is a strong defence for a tort charge. However, if there is negligence on the part of the individual under the order of a statue, then such defence cannot be claimed.
In Green v. Chelsea Co., the defendants were mandated by statute to ensure a continuous flow of water. However, a water pipe belonging to the company burst, thus flooding the plaintiff’s premises with water, without any fault or negligence on the part of the defendants. The courts held that the defendants were not liable as it was performing its statutory duty and did not practice any negligence on its part.
In understanding these exceptions to Strict Liability, we can further get a better grasp of the understanding of the evolution of the concept of Absolute Liability.
Rule of absolute liability
In the presence of the information mentioned hereinabove, it is now easier to understand the concept of Absolute Liability being the difference of Strict Liability and its exceptions. Strict Liability is the rule which makes any person owning a hazardous or dangerous object on his land liable for any damage caused, due to the escape of such object, irrespective of the individual’s intent in causing such damage or harm. Strict liability had the exceptions, stating that in case such escape occurred due to the Act of God, an act of Third Party, an act of the Plaintiff, or in pursuance of a statutory obligation, the liability would not apply.
In the second principle of the ‘No-Fault Liability’ concept of tort law, Absolute Liability, like its namesake, makes the individual absolutely liable for actions caused due to escape of a dangerous object in the non-natural use of land, without any exception. The rule of Strict Liability was considered to be saturated and concrete up until the 1980s in India, when the greatest disaster of the Bhopal Gas Leak occurred, where the question of exceptions of Strict Liability came into the forefront. It was in an unrelated case of the Oleum Gas Leak, wherein the Supreme Court of India finally created an offshoot of the concept of Strict Liability, known as Absolute Liability, giving the defendant no defence or exception to shy away from such liability.
Origin of absolute liability in India
In the case of Rylands v. Fletcher, the court established the principle of Strict Liability which was seen as a solid and concrete concept needing no further analysis in India. The law of the land at that time was not adept to hold the defendant liable in this case, and therefore Blackburn J implemented the principle of Strict Liability, which was adjusted by Lords Cairns later to only include those actions and damages which were attributed to the non-natural use of land. Pursuant to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and the Oleum Gas Leak, the Indian Judiciary found it imperative to initiate a concept to address such rare occurrences, wherein the defendant should have no exception in taking responsibility for the action that caused such large-scale damages.
Therefore, in the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, the Indian Judiciary, under the guidance of Justice Bhagwati, finally introduced the concept of Absolute Liability as being applicable in situations such as those of the case.
Oleum Gas Leak Case
Statements of Facts
M.C Mehta & Anr v. Union of India & Ors. was the progenerating case of the ‘Absolute Liability’ concept. In this case, Mr M.C. Mehta, a social activist, filed a Writ petition for the closure of a ‘Shriram Industries’ since it was manufacturing certain hazardous substances and located in a close-knit, densely populated zone. As a coincidence, in the pendency of the case in 1985, the same Industry leaked Oleum Gas from one of its units causing one death and several other injuries. The activist further filed a PIL under Articles 21 and 32 of the Constitution of India to seek the closure of the same Industry and its associated Plant engaged in using and manufacturing chemicals like Caustic Chlorine and Sulphuric Acid.
Chief Justice Bhagwati contended that despite there being a principle of liability established in Rylands v. Fletcher, there could be another principle that could be implemented in this case. The court held that the rule devolved in the precedent case in 1866 provided ‘that a person who for his own purposes being on to his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes must keep it at his peril and if he fails to do so, is prima facie liable for the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape’. However, the court stated that this rule was at a time when science and technology had not yet reached the level it had reached then, and law should not hinder due to age-old established practices.
Changes in the Law
The law should keep growing to include and be at pace with the society’s ever-changing dynamic economic, technological, and social standing. The court further held that “we are of the view 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 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.”
The Court explicitly stated that the new concept of Absolute Liability was not subject to any exceptions. There were two justifying reasons for the same, which were:
- The enterprise involved in hazardous and inherently dangerous activities has a social obligation to compensate people suffering due to the industries.
- The enterprise alone has the power and resources to invent and install safeguards against such hazards and dangers.
They state that in such an event where an enterprise is handling dangerous substances, they are not subject to Strict Liability or its exceptions as stated under the Rylands v. Fletcher case. The measure of compensation should be proportionate to the damage caused by the accident related to the hazardous and inherently dangerous activity of the enterprise.
The origin of this rule in India thus emerged after the horrors of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and the Oleum Gas Leak were finally acknowledged, and the courts found it necessary to find an alternative solution to address the liability issues in such circumstances.
The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991
As a ‘next step’ in the process of giving the principle of Absolute Liability a sound backing and reasoning in India, the Public Liability Insurance Act of 1991 was introduced. The object behind implementing such an act is that the rapid increase in the number of hazardous industries and operations in India has led to the incline in the risk of accidents, injuries, and damages, not only to the employees but also to the individuals and property located in the vicinity of such industries. This act, therefore, makes the situation of the affected persons better, by providing immediate relief in terms of insurance, to the workers and people affected and injured in the process of handling hazardous materials, either by themselves or industry or operation running nearby. The main purpose is to create a Public Insurance Fund to provide relief and immediate aid to people affected by such hazardous industries. The understanding of ‘Absolute Liability’ in this Act, is not clearly and explicitly stated therein, but has similar connotations under Sections 2(a) and 2(c) of the Act.
This act was implemented as a pursuant to the dangers propagated by hazardous industries, the understanding of which came as an afterthought to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, and the ruling given in the Oleum Gas Leak case of the Supreme Court.
Essentials of absolute liability
The essentials of Absolute Liability are similar to the understanding of Strict Liability, in the sense that it too requires the preconditions of a dangerous thing, the escape of such dangerous things, and damage caused due to the escape of such dangerous things. However, as required under Strict Liability, the essential of ‘Non-natural use of land’ is not a prerequisite to the rule of Absolute Liability. Blackburn J stated in the Chamber hearing of Rylands v. Fletcher, the escape of a substance from any kind of its use would make the defendant liable, which was later changed to only the ‘non-natural use’ of the land by Lord Cairns while addressing Strict Liability in the House of Lords. In taking Blackburn J’s conception further, absolute liability too, does not differentiate on the use of the land as natural or non-natural, while determining its applicability. Therefore the essentials of Absolute Liability are as follows:
- Dangerous Thing
- Hazardous or inherently dangerous substance: The major distinguishing factor in the essentials of Absolute Liability is the presence of a hazardous or inherently dangerous substance on the land. This means that if the defendant has a hazardous substance on his land, no matter what its use, such a defendant would be absolutely liable if such substance escapes his premises. The liability does not lie in the use of an object or thing, but in the nature of such an object or thing. Hazardous defined under Section 2 of the Public Liability Insurance Act 1991, is ‘any substance or preparation which is defined as hazardous substance under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 (29 of 1986), and exceeding such quantity as may be specified, by notification, by the Central Government’. This is the imperative distinguishing factor that validates the application of Absolute Liability.
Need for the principle of absolute liability
The rule of Strict Liability was introduced in Rylands v Fletcher as seen hereinabove. This rule in the case concerned has many exceptions, that the actual spectrum of the liability becomes very narrow. This old principle as brought out in 1868, may not suit all countries as well as it did then, due to the dynamic nature of technology and society. Though India did follow the laws of England since the pre-independence era, adjustments and amendments have been made to suit the country’s needs over time. Many rules and concepts which were not quite suitable in the Indian scenario, were modified to fit the criteria of Indian legislation. In the no-fault liability law, India followed the Strict Liability for itself, until it realized that this could not be properly applied to the Indian context. The major push came from the two incidents of the Bhopal Gas tragedy and the Oleum Gas Leak case, which instilled a realization of the need for a new principle for liability in India, to meet its industrial and economical requirements.
Industrialization and Growth
The Strict Liability concept was applicable when India was not as technologically adept as it is seen to be today. The prerequisites and essentials of Strict Liability just do not cover all the bases that it can to protect people that are harmed due to dangerous items. Therefore to meet the new era of industries and thereby even more dangerous substances and hazardous activities, a new norm was to be followed to pin responsibility on such industries.
In India, agriculture is a common and widespread area of employment. As a result, the storing of large amounts of water on one’s land becomes quite normal and escapes the ambit of ‘non-natural use’ of land, as was established in Rylands v Fletcher. In other parts of the country as well, there may be the use of certain things and execution of certain activities that may come under the umbrella term of ‘non-natural use of land’ in other countries, but not in the densely populated and developing country such as India. Thus, India required a principle that could cater to its own needs, and not a duplicate of the laws made in England.
The major party targeted in applying the Absolute Liability rule are industries and operations that use or manufacture hazardous or inherently dangerous substances in its premises. These industries were not present earlier and therefore the Strict Liability rule could be used on a general basis. These industries now utilize the country’s resources and additionally also pose a risk to the citizens. This Absolute Liability rule makes it compulsory for industries to take responsibility for their damages completely and non negotiably so that the health and wellbeing of the citizens and society are given priority.
Difference between strict liability and absolute liability
In Strict Liability, the point of contention is the ‘non-natural’ use of one’s land in using or handling an object/thing.
In Absolute Liability, the presence of hazardous or inherently dangerous substances or objects is necessary.
The escape of the dangerous thing is imperative, and it cannot be applied to damage caused inside the premises of the defendant, as seen in the case of Read v. Lyons and Co. hereinabove.
In Absolute Liability, the escape of such dangerous things is not necessary, but the mere use of a hazardous substance makes the party subject to this rule. It is applicable to damage caused to people inside as well as outside the defendant’s premises.
The Strict Liability rule has some defences and exceptions that can be used by the defendant. These include:
The defendants, therefore, have a chance to be relieved of the liability by proving that their act falls in one of the abovementioned exceptions to Strict Liability.
3. In Absolute Liability, the defendant does not have any scope for defence or exceptions but is held completely liable for the damages caused by them in all circumstances.
The rule solely applies to the non-natural use of land.
This rule applies to the natural or the non-natural use of any land.
Compensatory damages are paid to the plaintiff, depending on the nature and quantum of the damages caused to them.
The damages paid to the victims are exemplary in nature and are much greater as the defendants are liable for people’s lives and environmental conditions in such cases.
The Strict Liability concept was independently formed in England in 1868.
The Absolute Liability rule was formulated in India after the courts realized the shortcomings of Strict Liabilities. Absolute Liability was inherently Strict Liability – the exceptions.
There are various judgments that stood the test of Absolute Liability in India. Some of them are elucidated herein.
The Bhopal Gas Tragedy
On 2nd and 3rd December 1984, the gas known as methyl isocyanate leaked from the pesticide manufacturing plant of the Union Carbide Industry located at Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. The toxic gas leaked over the entire city, causing a death toll of approximately 4000 [four thousand] people, and incapacitating nearly 1.5 lakh people. In February of the successive year, the Indian Government filed a case, Union Carbide Corporation v. Union of India, claiming an amount of 3.3 billion dollars from the said company as compensation for the lives lost and damages caused. However, on forum non-conveniens, the case was transferred back to India. There was an out-of-court settlement that took place for 740 million dollars, which was highly criticized by the courts and the society at large.
What would be the liability of the industry?
Whether the tragedy raises the issue of absolute liability?
The Supreme Court upheld the validity of the settlement order but ruled out the provision quashing any criminal liability on the industry. The court stated that even if the company did take all precautions necessary for preventing such an outbreak of hazardous gas, the responsibility still lies in their hands. If not for the settlement order, this principle of absolute liability would be applied in toto, and the industry would have been absolutely liable for all damages and casualties of citizens caused by its hazardous substance. This is where the concept of absolute liability was awakened, even though only later applied in principle in the Oleum Gas Leak Case.
Uphaar Cinema Case (1997)
In this case, a fire broke out in Uphaar Cinema located in Delhi, during the movie screening of the newly released film ‘Border’, on June 13th, 1997. The source of the fire was later understood to be faulty wire connections in a transformer located in the basement of the theatre. The transformers, allegedly, needed repairs, but no such work was conducted on them and as a result, because of certain loose wires, a spark blew, which led to a tremendous fire in the theatre. Additionally, the exits were blocked, and the theatre was housing more people than it had seats, all of which caused an even greater outcome than what could have been prevented. This incident caused the death of 59 [Fifty Nine] people and left many others injured.
In a connected civil court case, ‘The Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy’ (AVUT) sought civil compensation from Ansal Theatre and Clubhotels Ltd., which owned the theatre. The verdict of this case came on 24 April 2003, and the Delhi High Court found owners of the Uphaar cinema, Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), Delhi Vidyut Board (electricity Board) (DVB) and the licensing authority ‘guilty of negligence’, and awarded Rs 25 crore civil compensation to the relatives of all the victims of the tragedy, which included Rs 15 lakh each to the relatives of the victims below the age of 20, and a sum of Rs 18 lakh each to those, above the age of 20. The compensation included Rs. 2.5 crore for the development of a trauma centre near New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital. The court directed the cinema owners to pay 55% of the compensation, since they were the maximum beneficiaries of the profit earned from the cinema, the remaining 45% was to be borne equally by MCD, DVB and licensing authorities, each contributing 15% of the amount.
Further, since the use of a transformer was a non-natural use of land, strict liability, as well as absolute liability, was levied on the theatre.
Vizag Gas Leak, 2020
On May 7th, 2020, a polymer plant of the LG Polymers India Private Limited leaked Styrene Gas, killing 11 [eleven] people and affecting the lives of thousands of others therein. On prima facie analysis of the cause, it appeared that the leak was a result of the failure of the company to meet the compliances entailed in the ‘Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules. 1989’, which in effect requires a company to maintain certain emergency plans for preventing onsite and offsite damages to the plant and its surroundings. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) took Suo moto cognizance of the incident and established a five-member committee for presenting a report of the incident, after inspection and analysis of the site in question.
The NGT, in addition to directing the concerned company to pay damages worth Rs. 50 crore, also observed that the company is only strictly liable for the damage it caused. It reiterated the justification of the applicability of only one principle, by stating that to ensure environmental protection, the ‘Polluter pays Principle’ is well within Indian Jurisprudence, and can be explicitly applied to the company in this present case.
Vide the Interim order passed by the Tribunal, the company was made to follow the penalties of the Polluter Pays Principle, and the Strict Liability Principle only. In taking into account the mass casualty of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, and the similar circumstances under which this incident occurred, the court should have applied the principle ordered in the preceding case, of ‘Absolute Liability’ in the present case. There is still speculation on the contention of Strict Liability being applicable instead of Absolute Liability. As seen hereinabove, absolute liability requires the presence of a hazardous substance.
In accordance with Rule 2(e) plus Entry 583 of Schedule I of the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules 1989, Styrene Gas explicitly is understood as a hazardous gas. Further, this gas escaped the premises of the company, and caused the loss of life and other widespread complications throughout its vicinity, thus checking the requirement of damage caused due to the hazardous substance. It also caused damage to the environment, as it came into the limelight that the company had been ignoring environmental control regulations, which coils have been a factor for the leak. All these factors combined, would, by past experience and analysis of the courts, call for the principle of Absolute Liability to be applied in this situation, as it fulfils all the prerequisites, and mimics the case in which Absolute Liability was first generated as a concept.
The application of only Strict Liability came as a step-back for the Indian Justice System, from the case of M.C Mehta v UOI. The court in the preceding judgment stated that the principle of Strict Liability is ‘woefully limited’, and thus the need of the hour was the second principle of Absolute Liability that put the entirety of the responsibility on the defendant. In the present case, however, the interim judgment of strict liability not only gave the defendants the chance to weed their way out using the escape door held open by the way of exceptions but also is in gross violation of Section 17 of the NGT Act, 2010, directing the NGT to apply the principle of Absolute Liability even in the case of accidents.
In pursuance of the same, the National Green Tribunal Act of 2010 has wholly adopted the concept of ‘absolute liability’ and mandates the Tribunal to apply the ‘no fault principle’ even if the disaster caused are an accident. It only recognizes the absolute or non-fault liability. That is, a hazardous enterprise is liable even if the disaster is an accident and not caused by the negligence of the company. The Act of 2010 fully incorporated the principle of 1986 Oleum gas leak Judgment.
Absolute Liability, as seen above, has not always been without any exceptions. Earlier, the unforeseen nature of the incident and the absence of mens rea could help in the defence of an individual charged with the same. The evolution of this concept with the evolution of industry and society rendered such exceptions redundant, and the concept as we know it now grew to become what it is.
The progressive and forward-thinking role that the Supreme Court donned in the M.C Mehta v UOI case is what India needs with respect to all laws and their relevance to the prevailing times. The evolution of Absolute Liability has brought with it better justice and decisions due to its applicability, and therefore it must be ensured that the growth of a principle as this is maintained by successive and just decisions of the courts.
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