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How Absolute Liability got Evolved?

How Strict Liability evolved?

Primarily prior to the year 1868, the concept of No Fault Liability was availed.

In the concept of No Fault Liability basically a test is conducted in which it is seen that whether the defendant has done any negligence or any fault on his/her part, if there is any fault then the defendant is liable for his/her negligence or act and if there is no fault it is very clear that the defendant will not be held liable.

However this concept of No Fault Liability was not appropriate and a new test was evolved called Strict Liability test in the year 1868 in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher.

Rylands v. Fletcher, 1868

Facts: There were two men living next to each other, Rylands and Fletcher. Fletcher owned a mill for whose energy requirement; he constructed a water reservoir on his land. To get this work done, he had hired independent contractors and engineers. There were old unused shafts under the site of the reservoir which the engineers didn't notice and thus did not block them. Due to the negligence of the contractors, the shafts that led way to Rylands' land burst when water was filled in the reservoir. This caused huge damage and loss to Ryland as the water entered into his coal mine. Thus, Ryland filed a suit against Fletcher.

Issue: It was clear that the issue was whether Fletcher was liable for the act or the negligence of the contractors?

Fletcher here raised a defence as per No Fault Liability Test that it was not his fault but was of the contractors and he didn't know of the fact that there were unused shafts under the reservoir.

However, in this case Fletcher (defendant) was held liable and it became an exception of No Fault Liability and the concept of Strict Liability was evolved.

In the judgement Justice Blackburn said:
We think that the true rule of law is that the person, who for his own purposes brings in his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it at his peril and if he does not do so is prima facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural if it escapes.

With this case we will see through the following:
What is Strict Liability?
The following principles were laid down to tell what Strict Liability is:
  • If a person brings dangerous substance or thing on his land which commits mischief and injures the neighbour, then the person who has brought dangerous substance or thing on his land is answerable even if he was not negligent.
  • In such a case that is Strict Liability the person is held responsible even if he is not negligent.
  • A person may use his land in natural way. But if he constructs something upon his land that which commits mischief the person (owner) who made or instructed someone to make that thing shall be responsible.

For the application of this rule following conditions are needed to be satisfied:
  1. Dangerous Thing: This simply means that the defendant will be liable for the damages only when the thing that escaped from his premises was a dangerous thing. The word dangerous here implies that it is likely to do any sort of mischief if it escapes from the land of the defendant. In the case studied above, the dangerous thing was the collected water in the reservoir on Fletcher's land. The rule specifies that things like gas, electricity, explosives, flag pole, noxious fumes, vibrations, yew trees, sewage and even rusty wires can also be termed as dangerous if escapes from the premises of the owner.
  2. Escape: The thing that has caused harm or mischief, it is also essential that the thing must escape from the premises of the defendant, that is, it must escape from the control and occupation of the defendant.
    For example- if the poisonous plants growing on the defendant's land escapes and enters the plaintiff's land and is then eaten up by the cattle on the plaintiff's land, the defendant is liable for the damages caused to the cattle of the plaintiff. On the other hand, if the plaintiff's cattle themselves enter the land of the defendant and eat the poisonous plants and die, the defendant will not be liable since there was no escape of his property.

Some case laws related to escape in Strict Liability are:

Cheater v. Cater, 1908

In this case, the branches of a poisonous tree that is planted on defendant's land, this amounts to escape of that dangerous, poisonous thing from the boundaries or control of the defendant and onto plaintiff's area. Now the issue here is that if the cattle consumes it will the defendant be liable.

It was held that since the tree is a dangerous thing and it escaped from the control or property of defendant which are the essentials for strict liability, the defendant will be liable for the damages.

Read v. Lyons, 1947

The plaintiff worked as an employee in the defendant's shell manufacturing company, while she was on duty within the premises of the company, a shell being manufactured there exploded due to which the plaintiff suffered injuries. A case was filed against the defendant company but the court let off the defendant giving the verdict that strict liability is not applicable here as the explosion took place within the defendant's premises, the concept of escape of a dangerous thing like the shell from the boundaries of the defendant is missing here. Also negligence on the part of the defendant could not be proved.

3. Non-Natural Use of Land: In the landmark case, that is, Rylands v. Fletcher the water collected constituted the non-natural use of land. Keeping water for domestic purposes is natural use but keeping water for use in the mill is non-natural use of land. For the use to be non-natural, it must be some special use bringing with it increased danger to others, and must not merely by the ordinary use of land or such a use as is proper for the general benefit of community. Electric wiring in the house, electric wiring in the shops, supply of gas in gas pipes in a dwelling house and water installation in a house are other examples of the natural use of land.

These are the three basic essentials for the applicability of the rule of strict liability. If the three cases are satisfied well in the case, then the defendant will be held liable for the tort under the tort of strict liability' and not following the no fault liability principle'.

Exceptions of Strict Liability:
  • Plaintiff's Own Fault
    If somehow the plaintiff himself enters into the land of the defendant and injures himself and then claims for damages, he is not liable for the damages since he himself went forward to the dangerous thing.

    In the case of Ponting v Noakes (1994), the claimant's horse died after it had reached over the defendant's fence and ate some leaves from a Yew tree. The defendant was not liable under this case as the Yew tree was entirely in the confines of the defendant's land and there had therefore been no escape.
  • Act of God
    An act of God can be defined as an event that directly and exclusively results from the occurrence of natural causes that could not have been prevented by the exercise of foresight or caution. In the context to the strict liability, if the escape was unforeseen and without any human intervention, caused by some super natural force, then the defendant will not be liable for the damages.

    In the case of Nicholas v Marsland, this defence was successfully pleaded. In this case, the defendant built up a dam in the natural stream flowing on his land to create artificial lakes there. Unfortunately, that land faced heavy rainfall that year. The rainfall was extra ordinary and unforgettable. Due to the rain, the embankments of the artificial lakes gave away. The rush of the water down the stream washed away the bridges of the plaintiff. It was held that the defendant was not liable.
  • Consent of the plaintiff
    In this exception, there is no common benefit to the defendant and the plaintiff, as in the case of volenti non fit injuria. For example, if the plaintiff and the defendant are neighbours and share the same water source on the land of the defendant, if any damage is causrd to the plaintiff due to that collected water, the defendant won't be liable.
  • Act of Third Party
    The rule of strict liability doesn't apply when the damages is caused due to the act of a stranger. A stranger will be a person who is not the servant of the defendant nor is under the control of the defendant. However, if the act of the stranger can be foreseen by the defendant, due care must be taken by the defendant to avoid the damages. In the case of Box v Jabb, the reservoir of the defendant overflowed because of a blockage in the drains by strangers. Thus, the court did not claim the defendant to be liable.
  • Statutory Authority
    An act done under the authority of the statute is a very strong defence to an action for tort. However, the defence cannot be pleaded if the if there is any kind of negligence on the part of the defendant who is under statutory authority.

The concept of Strict Liability led to the evolution of another, that is, Absolute Liability.
After the case of Rylands v. Fletcher, India evolved from the concept of Strict to Absolute Liability.

What is Absolute Liability?

If an industry or enterprise is engaged in some inherently dangerous activity from which it is deriving commercial gain and that activity is capable of causing catastrophic damage then the industry officials are absolutely liable to pay compensation to the aggrieved parties. The industry cannot plead that all safety measures were taken care of by them and that there was negligence on their part. They will not be allowed any exceptions neither can they take up any defence like that of Act of God' or Act of Stranger'

How Absolute Liability Evolved?

The rule of absolute liability was evolved in the case of \M.C. Mehta v Union of India. This was a very important landmark judgment that brought in a new rule in the history of the Indian Law. The rule held that where an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and it harm results to anyone on account of an accident in the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity resulting, the enterprise is strictly and absolutely liable to compensate to all those who are affected by the accident.

In M.C. Mehta v Union of India, In the city of Delhi, there was severe leakage of oleum gas on the 4th and the 6th of December, 1985. This took place in one of the units of Shriram Foods and Fertilizers Industries belonging to the Delhi Cloth Mills Ltd. due to this, an advocate practicing in the Tis Hazari Court had died and many others were affected by the same. The action was brought through a writ petition by way of public interest litigation (PIL).

In Indian law, public interest litigation means litigation for the protection of the public interest. It is litigation introduced in a court of law, not by the aggrieved party but by the court itself or by any other private party. It is not necessary, for the exercise of the court's jurisdiction, that the person who is the victim of the violation of his or her right should personally approach the court. Public interest litigation is the power given to the public by courts through judicial activism. However, the person filing the petition must prove to the satisfaction of the court that the petition is being filed for a public interest and not just as a frivolous litigation by a busy body.

The Supreme Court took a decision to evolve a new rule that fit to the economic and social conditions prevailing in India. The rule of absolute liability was then formed in preference to the rule of strict liability.
The rule clearly held that where an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and it harm results to anyone on account of an accident in the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity resulting, the enterprise is strictly and absolutely liable to compensate to all those who are affected by the accident and such liability is not subject to any of the exceptions which operate vis-à-vis the tortious principle of strict liability under the rule in Rylands v Fletcher.

The court gave two basic reasons justifying the rule:
Any enterprise carrying on hazardous activities for private profits have the social responsibility to compensate those suffering from any accident and it should absorb such loss as an item of overhead expenses.
The enterprise alone has the resources to discover and guard against such hazards and dangers.

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy is one of the most devastating accidents in the history. It was a mass disaster caused by the leakage of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) and other toxic gases from a plant set up by the Union Carbide India Ltd. for the manufacture of pesticides in Bhopal on the night of December 2, 1984. UCIL is a subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), a multinational company registered in U.S.A. More than 27 tons of methyl isocyanate and other deadly gases turned Bhopal into a gas chamber.

None of the six safety systems at the plant were functional, and Union Carbide's own documents prove the company designed the plant with unproven' and untested' technology, and cut corners on safety and maintenance in order to save money. The disaster resulted in the death of at least 3000 persons and there were serious diseases and injuries to many people. Some people permanently lost their eyes, hearing senses, some suffered from neurological disorders and scores of other complications.

The Supreme Court laid the rule of absolute liability in preference to the strict liability. The defence of the UCC on the grounds of sabotage was rejected and the principle laid by the Supreme Court in the M.C. Mehta v Union of India was followed.

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