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Contemporary Application of Absolute Liability in India

[i] The Principle of Absolute Liability is considered to be an extension of strict liability. Therefore, it becomes essential to have a clear understanding of strict liability first. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain starting in the year 1760 there was an increase in demand for unskilled labor.

With time the working conditions of the shareholders kept on degrading due to negligence by the factory owners. Because of such negligence, many hazardous accidents occurred and caused damages to various stakeholders. There was no law to protect the rights of the stakeholders.

In this situation the rule of strict liability evolved through the case of Rylands vs Fletchers in 1868, the rule simply stated that any person keeping any hazardous substance on his premises would be held liable if such substance escapes and causes harm to any other person and it would be immaterial whether due care and caution was taken by the defendant. However strict liability has various exceptions like Acts of God, Plaintiff's own fault, acts of a third party, Act done by a statutory authority.

Principle Of Absolute Liability

The Principle of Absolute liability makes the individual absolutely liable for damage caused by the escape of a hazardous substance without any exceptions irrespective of the individual's intent in causing such damage or harm. In simple terms, Absolute liability is also known as strict liability minus its exceptions.

Origin Of The Principle Of Absolute Liability In India

Until the 1980s the principle of Strict Liability was a concrete law in Indian Jurisprudence and was applied in cases with no further analysis. However, the changing dynamics and increased industrial development happening in India led to several MNCs being established in India it was not reasonable to apply a law that was formed dating back to the industrial revolution.

The defenses available in the principle of strict liability were often misused by the defendants to escape from liability, because of these reasons there was a need for a new law or an extension to the Rylands vs Fletchers rule which caters to the changing dynamics of the country back then. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy case of 1984 and the Oleum gas Leak case of 1986 these two major debacles that compelled the Supreme Court of India to evolve a new law in the case of M.C. Mehta vs Union of India. The M.C Mehta rule is more stringent compared to the Rylands vs Fletchers rule and also covers up various discrepancies in the strict liability.

M.C. Mehta Vs Union Of India (Oleum Gas Leak Case)

In this case Mr. M.C Mehta, a social activist filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court of India for the closure of Shriram Industries and its various plants for manufacturing hazardous substances like Sulphuric acid and Caustic Chlorine. The same industry was responsible for the leakage of Oleum gas that led to the death of one person and injured several others.

The then-Chief Justice P. N. Bhagwati held that despite there being an established principle in Rylands vs Fletchers case there is a need for a new rule, the law should not be hindered because of established principles and the law should continue to expand to reflect and stay up with society's dynamic, ever-changing economic, technological and social position. The absolute liability rule held in the M.C. Mehta case had four essentials.

The first prerequisite is the industry's nature, which is hazardous. The second rule unlike in Strict liability is that it is not important to escape if a person is injured either outside or inside the premises. The lack of any exceptions as defined by strict responsibility is the third requirement, and the size and scope of the industry will determine the fourth requirement-the number of damages to be paid. This rule applies to both natural and non-natural use of land while strict liability applies to only non-natural use of land. The apex court upheld the M.C. Mehta Rule in Charan Lal Singh vs Union of India (1990)

Vizag Gas Leak Case

On May 7, 2020, styrene gas leaked from a chemical plant owned by L.G Polymers India Pvt. Ltd. situated in Gopalapatnam, Vizag the incident took the lives of 11 people and caused sickness to over 1000 people, the facts of the case closely resonate with the Bhopal Gas Tragedy case of 1984 except the intensity of the accident after the wide publication of the incident the National Green Tribunal took Suo moto cognizance of the matter and formed a committee headed by retired Andhra Pradesh High Court Judge to inspect the matter, determine its various environmental and human consequences and find the appropriate course of action.

The NGT further directed LG Polymers to deposit 50 crores with the collector after analyzing the financial position of the company and the extent of the damage. Considering its proximity of facts with the Bhopal Gas Tragedy case except that LG Polymers unlike Union Carbide Corporation did not know in advance that the gas could leak several reports claimed the application of the principle of absolute liability however the National Green Tribunal has applied the principle of strict liability in the present case. This move by the NGT has been criticized by several environmentalists and law experts providing that this gives LG Polymers ample amount of exceptions to escape from liability.

Need For Absolute Liability

  • The Rylands vs Fletchers rule is one hundred and fifty years old and does not recognize the social and technological developments that have occurred in the country and hence does not apply to the current times.
  • There are different and varied uses of land between England and India this makes an English-made law inapplicable to a country like India. For example, storing water in large quantities is normal in India whereas it might be considered a non-natural use of land in England.
  • The principle fixes social responsibility to the industries using hazardous and dangerous substances for the risk and damages occurred to the citizens of the country.

Relevance Of Absolute Liability In India

With changing times, we can surely deduce that there is surely a need for a stringent law to hold industries accountable for the damage caused by them. But confusion arises when there is an overlapping between Absolute Liability, Strict liability, and principles of negligence. Which often causes courts of law and tribunals to be puzzled when it comes to dealing with actual cases.

The question before us is why not handle these cases by applying the principle of negligence and analyzing whether reasonable care was taken by the defendant and determining the liability according to it, these questions pose serious doubts regarding the relevance of absolute liability.

We can see that the MC Mehta "Absolute Liability" rule, which is praised by attorneys and environmentalists as a decision that changes the game and holds industries accountable for the damages caused by hazardous substances, but we must also see the other side of the coin as well understanding the current scenario it is undisputable that manufacturing any product is impossible without using hazardous substances.

It would not be wrong to infer that the M.C. Mehta rule could be influenced by the situation back then with the frustration of justice not being served to the victims of two major accidents. We should also notice that the M.C. Mehta rule was formed in the year 1986 that is before 1991 when the Indian Economy opened up over the past 36 years there have been drastic changes in the condition of the Economy and government policies.

After understanding our country's economic position and the nature of our recent policies there is a need for less stringent industry-friendly laws which balances the rights of the stakeholders, and the protection of the environment and provide reasonable defenses to the defendant in case of damage.

Chief Justice P. N. Bhagwati in the M.C. Mehta case only observed:
"Law has to grow in order to satisfy the needs of the fast-changing society and keep abreast with the economic developments, taking place in this country. As the new situation arises the law has to be evolved in order to meet the challenge of such new situations."

Thus, as the principle of absolute liability evolved in the M.C. Mehta case to meet the challenges which were present back then similarly it is of paramount importance for the judiciary to understand there is a need for a new less stringent version of the M.C. Mehta rule which works with the current situation and takes a balanced approach.

Research Papers:
  1. P Sanjana Parisaboina, A Critical Analysis of Absolute Liability and Its Role in Environment Law, Hein Online, 4 INT'l J.L. MGMT. & HUMAN. 405 (2021). 3Issue4IntlJLMgmtHuman447.pdf
  2. Charvi Devprakash, Absolute Liability: The Dynamics of Changing 'Business-Stakeholder' Relations, Hein Online, 3 INT'l J.L. MGMT. & HUMAN. 447 (2020) 3Issue4IntlJLMgmtHuman447.pdf
  3. Anamika Tyagi, Reiterating the Principle of Absolute Liability in Light of Oleum Gas Leakage Case, SSRN,9 November 2020" SSRN-id3697451.pdf
Articles/ Blogs:
  1. Soumya Shukla, The Enigma of Using Absolute Liability in The Indian Perspective, Legal Service India E-Journal,
  2. Ruhi Kanakia, The Evolution of Absolute Liability in India, iPleaders, 27 November 2020
  3. Preeti Sivaraman, Doctrine of absolute liability: Vizag gas leak angle, Lexlife India,
  1. M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, 1987 (1) SCC 395

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