The Oleum gas leak was one of the most horrendous incidents. It was similar
in nature with the horrific Bhopal Gas Tragedy. The Bhopal Gas tragedy had a
heinous and long term impact on the citizens. This is the aftermath of Oleum gas
leak which happened in Delhi. The complicated legal proceedings around the
Bhopal Gas Tragedy is sadly an example of what should not be done in this
situation. Again the question in the case was the magnitude of the liability of
such industry owners.
Court: Supreme Court of India
Title of the case: MC Mehta v. Union of India
Decided on: 20 December 1986 - Citation: AIR 1987 965
December 1985, large amounts of the dangerous oleum gas leaked from one of the
'caustic chlorine' units of Shri ram Food and Fertilizer Industry. The chemical
industry had been a cause of nuisance for a long time: all units were set up in
a single complex, surrounded by a thickly populated area.
A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed by MC Mehta calling for the
immediate closure of the plant and its subsequent relocation. There were few
more leaks which happened in the factory. After which the claims of compensation
were filed by the victims, by the Delhi Legal Aid & Advice Board and the Delhi
Bar Association. The SC at first held that the case should be referred to higher
bench as it involves substantial law and issues related to Article 21 and
- What is the liability in such cases?
- Could the industry be allowed operations?
- How should the liability and amount of compensation be determined in
- How does Article 32 of the Constitution extend in these cases?
- Whether the rule of Absolute Liability or Ryland v Fletcher is to be
Justice J. Bhagwati showed his concern about the issue Bhagwati stated the
proposal to eliminate toxic and hazardous factories could not be followed
because they still contribute to improving the quality of life. The
establishment of these industries are necessary for the social and economic
development of the country.
The court held that all exceptions to the rule set out in Ryland's v.
are not applicable to hazardous industries. The Court adopted the
principle of absolute responsibility. The exception available for this case was
the act of a third party or natural calamity but the court interpreted that as
the leakage was caused due to human and mechanical errors the possibility of an
act of third party and natural calamity is out of scope and hence the principle
of absolute liability is applicable here.
An industry that engages in hazardous activities that pose a potential danger to
the health and safety of those who work and live nearby is obliged to ensure
that there is no harm to anybody. This industry must perform its operations with
the highest safety requirements, and the industry must be completely responsible
to compensate for any harm caused by them, as a part of the social cost for
carrying such hazardous activities on its premises.
The principles found in this case were:
- The Central Pollution Control Board appoints an inspector to check that
emissions levels are in compliance with the Water (Prevention and Control of
Pollution) Act, 1974 and the Air (prevention and control of pollution) Act,
- To create a safety committee for employees.
- Industry to publicize about the consequences and the proper treatment of
- To train and instruct the employees regarding the safety of the plant
through audio-visual services and to install loudspeakers to alert
neighbours in case of gas leakage.
- Staff to use protective equipment, such as helmets and belts.
- That the employees of Shriram furnish the undertaking of the Chairman of
Delhi Cloth Mills Limited that they will be "personally liable" for paying
compensation for any death or injury in the event of gas escape resulting in
death or injury to staff or people living in the vicinity.
Reforms brought aftermath
The concept of absolute liability was originated in this case as the exceptions
which are there in strict liability leaves sufficient amount of risk. The court
also performed the function of an extra-parliamentary body by insisting that the
concept of absolute liability be used and thus set a precedent for future cases
The recent vizag leak case
is one of the examples where this case of used
as a precedent in terms of the extent of liability of employers in such cases.
The reforms brought by this case can be seen from the latest case of the Vizag
Gas Leak Case where LG Polymers would be held responsible and there is no
requirement to show that the leak was caused by negligence. The mere fact that
the leak happened from their plant is enough.
The court made the decision in such a manner so as not to hinder the economic
development of the country and also to ensure that there should not be any gross
injustice to the victims. This case acted as a guiding force for the
implementation of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 The case set a
precedent for all the industries to establish more stringent safety measures.
The gas leak case of Shri ram was also noteworthy because it was the first time
that a company had been held exclusively responsible for an incident and had to
pay compensation irrespective of its claims in defense. The reasons for the
decision have also been found not only on a legal basis but also on a scientific
basis, which is why a special judicial function has been undertaken by the
The decision was made also in view of the importance of industrialization and
the fact that it may eventually result in accidents. The decision was also
determined considering the terms of the need for industrialization and the
inevitable possibility and the impact of injuries. In general, it was a rational
decision, taking all social, economic, and legal factors into account, which
made the Supreme Court a defender of the environment and public rights.