Introduction to the Concept of Absolute Liability:
Law of torts mainly relies upon the compensation for the victim due to any negligence on the part of the defendant. Paying damages for compensating the loss of the victims is the crux of tort law. Absolute Liability is such a concept in the Law of Torts, which goes a step further from this ideology. To explain in a simple way, it can be said that absolute liability is the imposition of liability on a person for his conduct, whether the person is being negligent or not is not important in absolute liability. Absolute liability can, therefore, be also called as a no-fault liability. In absolute liability, there is no excuse on the part of the defendant, for if such a person is involved in any activity which is hazardous in nature, he will be held liable for any kind of damage or harm that arises as a result of this hazardous activity.
Relation between Strict Liability and Absolute Liability:
It is possible for people to err and assume that absolute liability and strict liability can be used interchangeably since they are the same, however, it would be a grave mistake to assume so. Although it cannot be denied that absolute liability as a concept is similar to strict liability in tort law, they are not the same since the rule of strict liability has a lot of exceptions that can be used as defences for strict liability. In strict liability, the person who commits wrong, that is the tortfeasor, can rid himself of any liability by claiming defences like volenti non fit injuria, consent of the victim, act of God, act done by statutory authority, or act of the third party. But these exceptions do not apply to absolute liability and therefore the tortfeasor under the absolute liability is always held liable.
In the case of MC Mehta v. Union of India1, The Supreme Court made a distinction between Strict Liability and Absolute liability. As per the Supreme Court, the rule of Absolute liability is applicable in all those cases which involve those companies or industries which are engaging in activities that are inherently dangerous. Therefore, any industries which do not fall in this above category would be covered under the rule of Strict liability.
The Supreme Court also added another aspect which distinguished strict liability from absolute liability. The Court held that in the rule of strict liability, it is important that the hazardous substance escapes from the defendant’s property, but in absolute liability, it is not mandatory for such a substance to escape one’s property, absolute liability can be applicable to those cases as well where the victims have been injured inside the premises of the property.
Also, the rule of strict liability only applies to cases involving a non-natural use of the land whereas this would not be applied for absolute liability. Even if the use of land is natural, absolute liability can be enforced.
And obviously, apart from all this, the exceptions for strict liability which are mentioned above cannot be used for absolute liability which is one of the fundamental differences between absolute and strict liability.
Moving further, absolute liability also controls the extent of damages that are to be paid to the victim. The rule of absolute liability dictates that the damages should be ordered by keeping in mind the financial capability and the magnitude of the company or the industry. The Supreme Court has also suggested that every enterprise is held under an obligation to ensure that high standards of security and safety are being maintained while engaging in activities that are inherently dangerous or hazardous in nature. The company or industry’s obligation also extends to the harm that may be caused due to such activities with or without the negligence on the company or industry’s behalf, the enterprise will be held ‘absolutely liable’ in such cases and they will have to compensate for any damage suffered by victims. In such cases no consideration whatsoever is to be given to enterprises claiming that they had exercised all forms of reasonable care while performing the activities and that there was no negligence on their part.2
In the case of K. Nagireddi V. Union Of India3, the Division Bench of Andhra Pradesh High Court highlighted the urgency to upgrade the old principle of strict liability as mentioned in the case of Ryland v. Fletcher4. The Court while expressing its opinion also said 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.”5
Landmark Cases for the rule of Absolute Liability:
Absolute Liability in Indian tort law is the result of two very landmark cases.
- MC Mehta v. Union of India6
It was held in this case that the rule of strict liability which was coined in the Rylands v. Fletcher case of English law in the 19th century cannot be considered in modern times since there has been a great development in the industrial sector since then. The present time requires a change in the law, as per Justice Bhagwati. He added to this, that when Ryland v. Fletcher and strict liability were coined back in the 19th century, the development of the industrial sector was at a primary level. In modern times today, there is a great development of industries which are inherently dangerous in nature and carry out hazardous activities. There is a dire need for a new rule which can cater to the present-day context.
In the case of Charan Lal Sahu v Union of India7, the Apex Court approved of the rule of absolute liability laid down in MC Mehta. To this, the Court also added that the more prosperous and larger the enterprise is, the greater shall be the amount of the damages which are to be paid as compensation to victims for the injury suffered by them due to the dangerous activities of the enterprise. This was laid down in order to have a deterrent effect on these large enterprises because not only do they owe an absolute duty of care to the people, but they also owe a non-delegable duty to the people.
What went down as one of the most historic events of India, The Bhopal Gas Leak Case has contributed greatly in the development of the rule of Absolute liability in Indian tort law. The case is based upon an accident that took place at a pesticide plant named Union Carbide in Bhopal. The accident resulted in the emission of 30 tons of methyl isocyanate which is a very toxic gas. There were other toxic gases released too from the accident. The residential area around the factory noted massive harm among the residents. In Court, when Union Carbide was held to be responsible, they argued that the act of the third party, that is the workers, resulted in this harm. The company used this exception as defense to escape from liability under strict liability. The company also maintained that they exercised proper caution and had also government permissions and authorizations to carry on the activity, and hence they were not liable.
The principle promulgated by Justice Bhagwati in the M.C. Mehta v. Union of India was then put to use in this case as well. Absolute liability was enforced on the defendants of this case wherein strict liability had failed to impose any liability on the defendants.
Present Scenario in India with regards to the rule of Absolute Liability:
The latest development in relation to the rule of Absolute liability is that Absolute liability can be enforced by the courts even in such cases where there has only been a single death. It is not necessary that absolute liability can only be covered for public loss or mass destruction of property. This can be evidently seen in the case of Klaus Mittelbachert v. East India Hotels Ltd.9 This case illustrated that the plaintiff suffered serious injuries as a result of diving into a five-star restaurant’s swimming pool. As a result of the investigation of this case, it was revealed that the particular swimming pool’s design was defective and the pool had an insufficient amount of water. The injuries of the plaintiff led to him being paralysed and consequently also resulted in his death. The plaintiff died 13 years after his accident. In this case, the Court held that since five-star hotels charge huge amounts to their patrons, they also owe a great duty of care to its guests. In this case, Hotel Oberoi Inter-Continental of New Delhi had violated this duty of care when the plaintiff died because of the defective design of the swimming pool. The court, in this case, held the hotel to be absolutely liable and ordered it to pay damages to the plaintiff worth Rs. 50 lakhs.10
The most recent developments in this area in India are revolving around the Vizag Gas Leak Case that happened this year. On May 7 2020, a company called LG Polymers India Pvt. Ltd. had a gas leak in its chemical plant situated in Gopalapatnam, Vizag, in Visakhapatnam. This company is a South Korean company and the gas that leaked from the plant was styrene gas which led onto over a thousand people getting sick and 11 people dying. Not only that, but the gas also hampered a lot of flora and fauna in the surrounding area. After the media widely covered this incident, suo motu cognisance was taken by the National Green Tribunal. The NGT adjudicated upon this incident and asked the company to deposit 50 crores of damages in accordance with the financial worth of the company by applying the rules of strict liability. Styrene gas has been declared as a hazardous chemical as provided in Rule 2(e) of Schedule I of the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules 1989, and the rule of strict liability was imposed by the NGT despite the damage to the environment, the long-term effects on health in the future, and the death of several humans. However, in this scenario, it would be more fitting to invoke the principle of absolute liability since the nature of the Vizag gas leak case is very similar to the Bhopal gas leak case. The substances and subject matter of both these cases are parallel too. Therefore, following precedent, absolute liability should have been invoked in the Vizag gas leak case as well.11
Since strict liability cannot always be used for making the defendants liable, the principle of absolute liability was devised as a stronger means making the tortfeasor accountable for his action. Absolute liability helps in compensating for the losses suffered by victims when there are cases of no-fault liabilities since there are no exceptions for absolute liability. With the development of the industrial sector, it was important to come up with a step further from strict liability so as to ensure the protection of people at large from damage. With the increasing application of absolute liability in Indian tort law, the duty of care on industries and companies has also increased. The rule of absolute liability in the present legal scenario has a wider scope since it not only provides relief to public injuries but also personal injuries. The wide scope of absolute liability also extends to not only the occupiers of the land but also those who are non-occupiers of the land.
- AIR 1987 SC 1086
- Ratanlal & Dhirajlal : Law of Tort 26th edition pg 520
- AIR 1982 AP 119.
- 866 L.R. 1 Ex.256. 1868 L.R. 3 HL 330
- AIR 1987 SC 1086
- AIR 1990 SC 1480
- (1989)(1)SCC 674: AIR 1992 SC 248.
- 1999 ACJ 287, 1997 IIAD Delhi 23, AIR 1997 Delhi 201, 65 (1997) DLT 428, 1997 (40) DRJ 147
Student, Kirit P Mehta School of Law, NMIMS Mumbai
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