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This article is written by Harman Juneja, from Dr B.R. Ambedkar National Law University, Rai, Sonepat. The article talks about the meaning and landmark judgements concerning strict liability along with the misapplications associated with the principle In India. 

Introduction

The article examines the evolution of the ‘strict liability’ principle established in Rylands v, Fletcher(1868), as well as how it has been implemented by the Indian courts. Various exceptions to the rule have been incorporated into the common law and Indian courts throughout the years.  Over time, Indian Courts have changed the original meaning of strict liability. As this article would prove, there are concerns about the conflation of the terms “strict liability” and “negligence,” as well as the patterns that have clouded the answer to important questions about strict liability’s application in India. 

Strict liability

The principle of strict liability was evolved in the case of Ryland V Fletcher in the year 1868. It  states that anyone who keeps any hazardous substances on his property will be held liable if those substances escape and cause damage. 

Ryland V Fletcher

Facts  

Independent contractors were hired by the defendant to build a reservoir on their property. While digging, the contractors discovered abandoned mines that were not sealed properly. Thus, they poured water into the reservoir. As a result, water rushed into the plaintiff’s mines on the neighbouring land through the mineshafts. At the Liverpool Assizes trial court, the verdict was in favour of the plaintiff.

Issue

This case raised two issues. These were-

  1. Whether the act of the defendant’s construction on his land was reasonable?
  2. Whether the defendant should be held accountable for damages incurred by the plaintiff?

Opinion of the Court 

The Court’s decision was upheld, stating that the defendant’s use of the land was unreasonable and he carried it out without due caution. This caused harm to the plaintiff.

According to Lord Cairns, LC, the defendant committed a non-natural use of his land. Blackburn J, who delivered the judgement of the Court of Exchequer Chamber and the House of Lords, said that the claimant must prove the following to succeed in this tort: 

  • The defendant trespassed on his property. 
  • It was likely that if the thing got free, it would cause trouble, and 
  • It did eventually get away and cause damage. 

Therefore, this also created essential elements that are to be taken into consideration in the case of strict liability. The three essentials are dangerous things, escape and non-natural use of land.

Judgement of the courts

The Trial Court’s decision was overturned and the defendant was found guilty by the appellate court, Court of Exchequer Chamber.  Its verdict was upheld by the House of Lords.

Essential elements of this rule

To determine whether liability is strict or not, certain criteria were established in the case. Only once these requirements have been met can liability be classified as strict liability. They are:

  • Dangerous thing- In simple terms, this means that the defendant will be held accountable if something dangerous escaped from his premises. The word dangerous here implies that, if the dangerous thing escapes it is likely to cause havoc. In the above-mentioned case, the large quantity of water to be stored in Fletcher’s reservoir was a potentially harmful factor.
  • Escape- The thing that is causing the harm must also escape from the defendant’s premises, and it must not be within the defendant’s reach once it has escaped.
  • Non-natural use of land- For usage to be considered non-natural, there must be a unique use that poses a greater risk to others. It cannot be normal use of land or use that is appropriate for the community’s overall benefit.

Impact of the case 

The concept of strict liability was born as a result of this judicial decision. Before this case, English courts had not relied on strict liability in similar circumstances, Instead they focused on the motivation behind the conduct rather than the nature of the actions themselves. The case, on the other hand, imposed a severe liability on unnatural use of land without requiring proof of a duty of care or negligence, signalling a fundamental doctrinal shift. The case has been used in various jurisdictions and has been acting as a strong and valid precedent.

Difference between strict liability and absolute liability

Absolute liability simply means strict liability but without any exceptions. In the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (1987), the rule of absolute liability was developed. Here, it went one step further than strict liability, by stating that an enterprise engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity is liable for any harm resulting from the operation of such activity and must compensate all those who are harmed by the accident.

M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (1987)

Facts

On the 4th and 6th of December, 1985, a serious oleum gas leak occurred in one of the Shriram Foods and Fertilizers Industries units of the Delhi Cloth Mills Ltd. in Delhi. An advocate practising in the Tis Hazari Court died as a result of this, and many others were impacted. The court was served with a writ petition in the form of public interest litigation (PIL).

Arguments

It was argued that if all tragedies resulting from the actions of huge factories follow the strict liability rule, they will fall within the exceptions and be exempt from accountability for the harm they have inflicted in the course of their business.

Judgment

The Court held that if a company is permitted to engage in any hazardous or inherently dangerous activity for profit. However the law must assume that such permission is contingent on the enterprise bearing the cost of an accident resulting from such hazardous activity as a suitable item of its overhead costs. Therefore they held the defendant liable for the act and coined a new rule known as absolute liability.

The bench gave clear points of distinction between strict liability and absolute liability in this case. They are as follows:

  • Unlike strict liability, here, It is not required to get a dangerous substance out of one’s land. Those who are hurt both within and outside the premises are subject to absolute liability.
  • Unlike the rule of strict liability, the rule of absolute liability has no exceptions.
  • Ryland v. Fletcher clarified that the strict liability rule applies solely to non-natural uses of property, whereas absolute liability applies to all uses of land. If a person uses a dangerous substance and it escapes, he will be held accountable, regardless of whether they took all due precautions. 
  • The magnitude and financial capability of the institute determine the extent of the damages. The Supreme Court also stated that the company must ensure that the hazardous or inherently dangerous activities in which it is engaged are conducted with the highest standards of safety and security. If any harm results as a result of such negligent activity, the enterprise/institute must be held liable to compensate for any damage caused.

Indian judiciary on strict liability 

While courts in Australia and England have debated whether the notion of strict liability is still applicable or has been absorbed by the tort of negligence, courts in India have also debated whether the principle has now been integrated as part of absolute liability. The courts have frequently used the idea of strict and absolute liability combining the two types of obligations. This apparent conflation of the two ideas appears to be the result of a misreading of Indian and English case law on strict liability-related issues such as the Indian Council For Enviro-Legal vs Union Of India & Ors, (2011) etc. The Supreme Court went on to consider why “the rule of strict liability is inappropriate or unacceptable in India” in this case. 

Even though the theory of absolute liability has been recognised in India to meet the needs of the present-day economy and structure, the courts in India still take the case on Rylands v Fletcher as one of the important precedents for deciding liability of parties. This is because the applicability of the absolute liability rule is predicated on the company’s involvement in a hazardous or inherently dangerous business that constitutes potential harm to the health and safety of those working or living in the surrounding areas.

The idea of strict liability, on the other hand, applies when a person brings and holds anything likely to cause harm if it escapes. Furthermore, such an activity would have to be an unnatural use of the land. As a result, there may be instances where a person uses his land for a non-natural purpose that isn’t hazardous or inherently dangerous such as constructing a bund or small dam on the property. This has been recognised in many cases and one such case Jay Laxmi Salt Works vs. the State of Gujarat (1994).

Jay Laxmi Salt Works vs. the State of Gujarat

This case is a watershed moment in tort law by virtue of determining the government’s liability in negligence cases.

Facts

The Gujarat government has issued an order for the construction of a dam. In 1955, the dam was completed successfully. The appellant filed many applications with the relevant authorities, requesting either a change in the project’s location or the outright cancellation of the project, but to no avail. The concerned authorities did not take any suitable action in response to this issue, and construction work continued. The water level in the dam rose above the safe threshold one day after heavy rainfall in the area. As a result of the dam’s excess water, the appellant’s factory facilities were inundated, causing substantial property and material damage.

Judgment

While the High Court ruled in favour of the Respondent, the State of Gujarat.The reason provided was because the construction of the dam was not a non-natural act and that the main purpose of the construction was the public’s welfare.

The Supreme Court ruled that just because the dam was a non-natural act does not mean the government can abdicate its responsibility. They held that even though the dam was erected for the community’s benefit, it served an important purpose, and the use of land or water was not an act of non-natural use. However, this does not absolve the government of its responsibilities to its inhabitants in cases when infractions result in property damage or injury. The injury itself is the main source of concern, not how it occurred. Thus, the government was held liable.

Union of India v. Prabhakaran Vijaya Kumar

Further, in Union of India v Prabhakaran Vijaya Kumar (2008), the Supreme Court stated that the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher had been subsequently interpreted to cover a variety of things likely to cause damage if they escaped, regardless of whether they were dangerous per se. water, electricity, colliery spoils, and flagpoles were among the instances given by the Court.

MV Kew Bridge v Finolex Industries

In MV Kew Bridge v Finolex Industries (2014), the plaintiff claimed that it had incurred economic loss as a result of the defendant’s vessel carrying LPG becoming grounded near the plaintiff’s jetty although no physical damage had occurred because the LPG had not escaped. The plaintiff argued that the Supreme Court had disregarded the principle of Rylands v. Fletcher and that the defendant was liable based on absolute liability in response to a motion by the defendant challenging the maintainability of the action on the basis that liability for negligence based on only an economic loss is not allowed. The Bombay High Court correctly ignored the plaintiff’s arguments and held that the strict liability concept still applies in India. Further, n the defendant’s motion, it was also decided that because there was no “escape” of the LPG gas.

Despite certain conflicting judgements, Indian courts have continued to recognise and apply the strict liability rule in some circumstances. At the same time, it is argued that the rule has been misconstrued and misapplied in recent years. This caused inconsistency in the jurisprudence of the principle, leading to confusion about its applicability in various cases.

Misapplications of the principle of strict liability

In the MC Mehta case the Supreme Court established the law not just to determine the matter before it, the Shriram case, but also to apply it to the Bhopal gas tragedy case. Furthermore, because precedents are declarative, the principle would apply to the Union Carbide case too even if it wasn’t law at the time of the catastrophe. The Supreme Court’s constitution bench ruled that where an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and harm is caused to anyone as a result of an accident in the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity, such as the escape of toxic gas, the enterprise is strictly. So it would be liable to compensate all those who are affected by the accident and such liability and is not subject to the exceptions mentioned in the rule of Rylands V Fletcher that is discussed before.

With the misapplications and misconceptions of the strict liability principle in India, it is necessary to reflect on and consider the application of the principle that exists in the country.

In Kaushnama Begum v New India Assurance (2001), a jeep’s front tyre ruptured, causing the vehicle to capsize and collide with a person who died as a result of the injuries. The claims before the Motor Accidents Claims Tribunal were dismissed because there was no rashness or recklessness. However, the appellant maintained that the respondent is strictly liable.

The Court said that the issue of liability rests on whether the Rylands v Fletcher rule may be applied to vehicle accident cases. It’s also worth noting that the appellant did not argue or demand compensation under Motor Vehicles Act 1988, § 140, which provided for “no-fault” liability and a fixed amount of compensation, but instead argued strict liability outside of the Act’s provisions. 

The Supreme Court held in the judgment of Gujarat SRTC v Ramanbhai Prabhatbhai(1987) that due to the ever-increasing volume of traffic, motor vehicles on the roads may be considered to some extent to fall under the liability principle defined in Rylands v. Fletcher. Unless the idea of social justice has any validity, a pedestrian who is injured or killed by a motorist without his fault, whether negligently or not, should be allowed to recover damages through his or her legal representation. The rule in Rylands v Fletcher, like any other common law concept acceptable to India’s jurisprudence, can be followed at least until a new principle emerges that outperforms the former.

However, this principle could not have been applied in the following case. This is because there was nothing placed onto a person’s land, no escape. Driving a jeep cannot be considered a non-natural use of the property. As a result, applying Rylands v Fletcher to car accident situations is incorrect. 

In the recent case of Vohra Sadik Bhai v State of Gujarat (2016), damage to the appellants’ property was caused by the respondent state releasing water from a dam, when the water level grew dangerously high due to heavy rains. According to the appellants, the harm was caused by the respondents’ gross negligence and lack of administration, given the respondents were aware that the monsoons were approaching. To satisfy the demands of the following monsoon, the dam’s water level should have been kept low. The respondent State claimed that the release was caused by severe rains, which it said was an act of God. Thus, it contended that it was not liable. With all due respect, the Supreme Court’s decision is very complicated. 

On the one hand, it recognises that the Rylands v. Fletcher principle of strict liability may not apply because the construction of a dam was for the benefit of the community and cannot be classified as a non-natural purpose. As a result, it looked into whether the respondent was careless and whether the damage might have been avoided physically.  On the other hand, the Court, although finding that the respondent was careless, stated in light of the principle established in Rylands v. Fletcher, the onus was on the respondents to discharge such a duty, which they have woefully failed to accomplish. On that basis, it concluded that the respondents were negligent in causing harm to the appellants’ fields.

The petitioner’s husband in the case of  Alamelu v State of Tamil Nadu (2012) died due to electrocution when a branch of a tree fell on the wire which in turn fell on him. The Court, in this case, held the state liable under the principle of strict liability. This was even though it was found that the branch of the tree fell due to heavy rainfall and not due to improper maintenance by the authorities.

The principle of strict liability was applied by the court to compensate people falling in the manholes as in the case of Delhi Jal Board v Raj Kumar (2005).

The plaintiffs in State of Punjab v Modern Cultivators (1965) were harmed by the overflowing of water produced by a breach in the defendant state government’s canal. While noting that this was one of the first cases of its kind in India, Justice Hidayatullah held that the strict liability rule in Rylands v. Fletcher was inapplicable because canal systems are essential to the life of the nation and land used as canals is subjected to ordinary use, not an unnatural use. However, the Court eventually decided that the defendant was liable since the government had been negligent in maintaining the canals. The Supreme Court in Modern Cultivators did not rule out the existence of strict liability under Indian law, but merely expanded the exceptions to the principal’s application.

However, the Supreme Court did not go so far as to overturn the principle of strict liability in Modern Cultivators. Until 1994, the courts considered that the Supreme Court had ‘modified’ the strict liability standard established in Rylands v Fletcher in Modern Cultivators. The High Court proceeded on a similar basis in Jay Laxmi Salt Works v State of Gujarat, and the Supreme Court ultimately decided that the ratio in Rylands v Fletcher had not been modified by the Indian Supreme Court in Modern Cultivators. Rather, the Court chose to rely on the American Courts’ introduction of the idea of “fault liability.” In essence, fault liability is liability stemming from negligence, as defined by the High Court of Australia.

The difference between strict and fault liability, however, stems ‘from the existence or absence of mental element,’ and a ‘breach of legal duty knowingly, deliberately, or even maliciously is carelessness arising from fault liability,’ according to the Supreme Court in Jay Laxmi Salt Works. However, this was a faulty interpretation. One may not have breached their obligation willfully, deliberately, or maliciously, but they have nonetheless failed to exercise the necessary care to prevent something from escaping or causing mischief. An intent to cause harm (by malice, deliberately or wilfully) has never been required to establish culpability for negligence. Thus, the court erred here.

Analysis of the Indian Court’s decisions

Despite the Supreme Court’s skewed understanding of fault liability, the Court’s rulings in Modern Cultivators and Jay Laxmi Salt Works are significant because they recognised liability for negligence while not ruling out the existence of the strict liability rule in Indian law.

The burden of proof or the discharge of any burden by the defendant is unrelated to the notion of strict responsibility established in Rylands v Fletcher. In that case, neither Lord Blackburn nor the House of Lords mentioned the requirement of a burden of proof or the defendant’s duty to discharge any burden. Surprisingly, the Indian Courts have declared it a legal concept without even considering the case. Recently in the judgement of Samir Mehta v Union of India (2017), awarding Rs 100 crore in environmental compensation the National Green Tribunal made numerous references to the principle of strict liability, stating that its goal is to ensure that what is proven by the Applicant concerning damage and degradation of the marine environment is restored and restituted.

Finally, the notion of strict liability is now recognised by several statutes. To this purpose, the usual rule is that where liability is governed by statute, the Rylands v Fletcher principle and the exceptions thereto will not apply. Situations arise when some statutes provide for strict liability while simultaneously establishing the amount of compensation.

Thus, even though the Motor Vehicles Act 1988, Section 140, provides for the idea of no-fault responsibility, the Supreme Court concluded in Kaushnama Begum, that a plaintiff may still seek compensation under the theory of strict liability established in Rylands v Fletcher.

Similarly, in situations involving the Railways Act 1989, Section 124A. The theory of strict liability in torts has been used. It is respectfully urged that just supplementing the compensation granted by legislation with strict responsibility rules existent in tort renders the statutory provisions useless. Even the contentious Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act of 2010, which limits compensation for absolute liability for nuclear damage, would be meaningless if this were the case. This proves that the previous decisions were inconsistent with the principle of strict liability.

Conclusion

As stated by the High Court of Australia in Burnie Port Authority (1994) held that strict responsibility no longer existed as a separate head of liability and should instead be considered absorbed by the rules of ordinary negligence. The logic is that when a defendant does a dangerous act or takes anything capable of causing harm to his property, all that is required is a heightened duty of care. In the case of Transco plc v Stockport MBC [2004], on the other hand, the House of Lords, while agreeing with the High Court of Australia on some points, ruled that abolishing the strict liability principle would be too drastic a step to take.

As the Hon’ble Supreme Court recognised in M C Mehta, the law must evolve to meet the requirements of society. The idea in Rylands v Fletcher was established in the late 1800s, and the law of negligence has come a long way in defining the defendant’s duty of care proportionate to the risk of the action. In Indian law, there is a lack of clarity on two parts of the principle: 

  1.  If the principle of strict liability should be applied at all? 
  2.  If so, under what conditions the concept must be applied. 

Recent Indian court rulings, as detailed in this study, have muddied the waters on both of these issues. To sum it up, that strict liability is no longer applicable in India in its existing form because of the tangle of jurisprudence.

References


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