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This article is written by Diganth Raj Sehgal, Student, School of Law, Christ University, Bangalore. The author in this article has discussed the relevance and need of Absolute Liability which has evolved from the concept of Strict Liability over the course of time.

What is the idea behind making somebody Tortiously Liable?

A tort is a term which means violating a person’s civil rights by causing damage, injury, or harm to another person. The violation may result from intentional/unintentional actions, the omission of duty as in negligence, or due to violating any statutes.

Tortious Liability

The person that commits the tort is called the tortfeasor. A tortfeasor incurs tortious liability, meaning that they will have to compensate the victim for the harm that they have caused to them. In other words, the tortfeasor who is found to be “liable” or responsible for a person’s injuries will be required to pay unliquidated damages (damages whose value is not fixed or whose value is fixed as per the jurisdiction of the court).

Liability arises either when legal rights are violated without causing loss or damage (injuria sine damno) as seen in the case of Ashby v. White 92 (1703) 92 ER 126, or when damages are caused without violation of any legal rights (damnum sine injuria) as seen in the case of Gloucester Grammar School Case (1410) Y B 11 Hen IV 27.

So, the idea behind making somebody liable is either to return them to status quo or to at the least monetarily compensate them in a manner attempting to bring them as close to the original position as possible.

There are instances when the movement from the original position is not caused directly due to the act of the other person. Sometimes, despite due care, there can be a loss caused.

Example

In the case of Stella Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, an old lady, Stella Liebeck who had suffered third-degree burns in her pelvic region when she accidentally spilled hot coffee in her lap after purchasing it from a McDonald’s restaurant. Liebeck was hospitalized for eight days while she underwent skin grafting, followed by two years of medical treatment.

When she claimed her medical expenses from the restaurant, they refused to pay. This led her to file a civil suit against the restaurant.

Here, McDonald’s had to pay a compensation amount to make sure the old lady is returned to her desired status by paying off her medical bills and an amount to balance the pain/harm/loss/mental trauma caused to her. The same is projected as Liability under the law. The idea behind the tort law is to impose liability on a person that has wrongfully gained anything from the loss of another.

The Concept of Strict Liability

Strict liability is a legal concept that holds a party responsible for their actions or products, without the plaintiff having to prove negligence or fault. When someone is involved in ultrahazardous activities such as keeping wild animals, using explosives or making defective products, then they may be held liable if someone else is injured.

The principle of Strict liability was first laid down in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher (1868) LR 3 HL 330, where the defendants employed independent contractors to construct a reservoir on their land. The contractors found disused mines when digging but they failed to seal them properly. They filled the reservoir with water. As a result, water flooded through the mineshafts into the plaintiff’s mines on the adjoining property. Here, the House of Lords held that any person who allows a dangerous element on their land, which escapes and damages a neighbour, will be liable. Here, the claimant only needs to prove that the tort occurred and that the defendant was responsible. It is not necessary to prove negligence on the part of the landowner from which the dangerous substance escaped.

Essentials of Strict Liability

  1. Dangerous/ Hazardous Substance – The defendant will be held strictly liable only if a “dangerous” substances escape from his premises. The things which the defendant is holding in his land should be dangerous to others, having a tendency to cause harm to the public at large.
  1. Escapes from land – Another essential condition to make the defendant strictly liable is that the harmful substance so kept should escape from the premises of the defendant. Such substance which is in possession of a person should escape and enter into someone else’s premise to cause harm to the other person. It is necessary that the dangerous object so kept should also escape from the premises of the defendant which leads to a loss or damage to the property of the plaintiff. The substance which is in possession of a person, escapes from the property of such person and enters into another’s property, harming that person, would make that person liable as per strict liability.
  1. Non-natural use of land – It should be kept in mind that there must be some special use or purpose which increases the danger to others. The use of such land should be different from the ordinary use of it.

For example: If a residential land is used for testing bombs.

Application of Strict liability

Strict liability often applies when people engage in inherently dangerous activities. It is a legal concept which holds companies, persons or associations of the person responsible for such activities which cause damages, regardless of whether there is any tort committed or whether there is negligence or any actual fault on their part.

Strict Liability in Product Defect cases

Strict liability also may apply in the case of certain manufactured goods. In strict product liability, anyone who is involved in the manufacture or sale of the product can be held responsible if it was defective and someone was injured.

Strict Liability in Animal attack cases

In the law of torts, strict liability has traditionally been applied for damages caused by animals. Because animals are not governed by any law or conscience and those who keep animals have a duty to control them. In most instances, the general rule is that owners of all animals, including domestic animals, are strictly liable for damage resulting from the trespass of their animals on the property of another or any act done by them of which the owner had the knowledge and he had been negligent in taking proper care.

Exceptions to the rule of Strict Liability

There are several circumstances where the concept of Strict liability does not apply, so what are those conditions?

  1. 1. Plaintiff’s Fault – If the plaintiff suffers damage by his own intrusion into the defendant’s property then all his rights to complain about the damage so caused are nullified.

Example– Koko enters the premises of a factory in order to trespass. While on the property, he is injured due to shards of glass that are spread around during a manufacturing process. Here, the factory management can take this exception as a defence to avoid liability.

  1.  Act of God – An event which is beyond the control of any human agency. Such acts happen exclusively due to natural reasons and cannot be prevented even while exercising caution and foresight. Such acts which occur due to an unforeseeable event do not give any right to the plaintiff to complain about the damage suffered. Example- Sita and Geeta are neighbours who live by the ocean. Geeta grows poisonous berries on her land. Due to a high tide, some berries wash into Sita’s land and are consumed by her dog that dies. Geeta is not liable as she falls under this exception.
  1. Act of the Third Party – This rule also does not apply when the damage is caused due to the act of a third party. The third party means that the person is neither the servant of the defendant nor the defendant has any contract with them or control over their work. If an act was done by such party, the plaintiff cannot claim his rights. An example of this is the argument made by the defendants in the Bhopal Gas leak case (discussed below).
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  1.  Consent of the Plaintiff – This exception follows the principle of volenti non fit injuria. This means in situations where the plaintiff has voluntarily consented to suffer the harm for the common benefit of both, then the defendant would not be held liable.

Example- Pappu buys tickets to watch a cricket match. During the course of the match, a leather ball comes and hits him on his face. Here, the cricketer cannot be held liable as Pappu by buying the ticket, consented to any such possible harm.

The Concept of Absolute Liability

Absolute Liability, in its basic sense, means a liability which is imposed upon certain conduct, regardless of whether or not such conduct is negligent or liability without fault – for which there is no excuse. If any person is engaged in any hazardous activity and if any harm occurs while carrying out such activity then the person will be held liable for the harm or the damage so occurred under absolute liability.

The rule of Absolute liability in some sense similar to the rule of strict liability where there are no exceptions which are available in the case of strict liability. The exceptions present under the concept of strict liability which does not hold the tortfeasor responsible are when the act is done by the victim which led to such situations, any act done with the consent of the victim, any act of God, an act of any third party or any act done under the statutory authority.  

So Mathematically, Strict Liability – Exceptions = Absolute Liability

And, Exceptions + Absolute Liability = Strict Liability

Example

Hawai Ltd is operating in Malviya Nagar, Delhi, engaging in the production of boots and Chappals. During the production, gases and fumes are released which are hazardous in nature. Despite all due care and precaution of the Management of Hawai Ltd., the harmful gas escaped, resulting in the death of people and severely impacting them. Now, the question is, who would be responsible for such an act and what remedy would be provided to the people?

When we look at this Example, the rule of strict liability cannot be fully functional. There are certain activities which have a wide spreading and permanent effect on the surroundings and such acts need to be punished absolutely even if they are done without any fault. Due to the exceptions to strict liability, corporations can escape liability if they fall under the given exception.

Landmark Judgments which applied the rule of Absolute Liability

To avoid this, the concept of Absolute Liability was brought in the case of MC Mehta V. Union of India 1987 SCR (1) 819 and further applied in the Bhopal Gas Leak Case AIR 1992  SC 248. This was done because imposition of liabilities in certain cases was more important as they had a lasting impact.

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.

Further, he stated that in the 19th century the industrial developments were at a primary stage but now, hazardous or inherently dangerous industries are necessary to carry out development. So, this old rule cannot be held relevant in the present-day context.

Relation Between Strict and Absolute Liability

The Supreme Court, in the case of MC Mehta v. Union of India, distinguished between Strict and Absolute liability as following-

  • Absolute liability will be applied in cases where the industries or companies are involved in inherently dangerous activities. Thus, the industries other than these would be covered under Strict liability.
  • Another point that distinguished absolute liability from strict liability is that there is no need for the dangerous substance to escape one’s property, it would be applied to all those harmed/ injured inside or outside the premises.
  •  The exceptions given for strict liability would not be applied for absolute liability.
  • The rule that strict liability would only be applied to the non-natural use of the land would not be applied for absolute liability. It would be applied even if the use is natural.

On the night of December 2, 1984, an accident at Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, released at least 30 tons of a highly toxic gas called methyl isocyanate, as well as a number of other poisonous gases. This caused massive harm to the residents around the factory (As in Example 2). When the company was asked to be accountable, the company argued that the harm caused was due to the act of a third party (workers) and the company could not be held liable for such acts as it fell under the exceptions of Strict liability. The company denied any negligence on its part and said that neither the company nor its officials have any intention to cause harm to the public and they acted with proper and due authorisations and permissions from the government.

During the course of this case, the principle laid down by Justice Bhagwati in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India for Absolute liability was used to hold the company liable in a manner where the exceptions of strict liability could not be used.

Conclusion

The principle or doctrine of Absolute liability is a much stronger tool than the doctrine of strict liability because it holds the person or any corporation liable not only for the acts done by any third party but also acts which affect the public at large. It helps to compensate for the losses caused in a no-fault situation without any exception. The shift from strict liability to absolute liability was very important as with the industrial developments, the probability of vast public damage grew and with this, grew the need to ensure the safety of the people. This led to both increasing the duty of care on the industries and other corporates and increasing their liability by making it absolute in nature. The cases of MC Mehta v. UOI and Bhopal Gas Leak not only paved the way for development in environmental jurisprudence, but they also led to the evolution of Absolute Liability in India.

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