In this project, we analyse the doctrine of absolute liability and its application in the case of “UCC vs. Union of India (1988).” We research the infamous Bhopal Gas Tragedy referred to as one of the most catastrophic events that the world has witnessed. In addition to the review of the litigation involved in deciding compensation, we will discuss the facts about the disaster and its immediate effects.
The project will discuss the possible causes of the accident, which clarify both the business and the state. We go on to discuss how the principles of Absolute Liability came into play during the ensuing legal procedure in the aftermath of the disaster.
What is absolute liability?
Absolute liability states that when a person/enterprise is involved in harmful or hazardous activity with the intention of making any profit and that object escapes from the land and causes any harm to anyone outside, the owner of the land is liable for the damages.
Absolute liability is a concept of law that evolved in India after the Oleum Gas Leak Case or the “M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India”. Basically, Absolute Liability is Strict Liability without any exemptions.
It is a standard of legal liability found in tort as well as criminal law of various legal jurisdictions. Those liable for Absolute Liability cannot use defences like Act of God, Negligence, Volenti Non-Fit Injuria, Statutory Authority.
Absolute liability has no exceptions, hence is intrinsically different from liability of strict in nature. In cases of strict liability, compensation is given based on the kind and amount of losses caused, but in cases of absolute liability, compensation or damage is exemplary in nature.
The amount chosen should be more than the amount of harm produced. In cases of strict liability, compensation is given based on the kind and amount of losses caused. Exemplary damages are awarded in absolute liability.
The amount chosen should be more than the amount of harm produced. In most cases, industrial hazardous incidents result in mass deaths and loss of property environment. The primary reason absolute liability was established was because strict liability wasn’t adequate.
Absolute liability was introduced in India in order to ensure non-exhaustive liability for businesses operating with dangerous substances. That is because they used an exception to the strict liability rule in to avoid liability for the damage created by hazardous businesses developed in and around densely populated regions.
Below mentioned are some elements of torts: –
- Liability arises even if the hazardous substance hasn’t escaped from your land, even a person standing outside the premises it gets injured, you are liable.
- The rule applies solely when the use of land is non-natural in the case of strict liability, whereas the rule applies when the use of land is both natural and non-natural in the case of absolute liability. This improves people’s safety in all situations.
- In case of absolute liability, exemplary damages are awarded. The greater the size and prosperity of the enterprise, the higher the compensation it will pay. This ensures goodwill of the community and adequate punishment to the wrongdoer.
Absolute liability vs. strict liability
- In Absolute Liability, a person can be liable if there are inherently dangerous activities taking place.
In Strict Liability, a person can be liable for any other activity.
- In Absolute Liability, Escape is not necessary, liability can arise even within the premise.
In Strict Liability, Escape is necessary element.
- In Absolute Liability, Interest of money is involved.
In Strict Liability, no such interest is involved.
- In Absolute Liability, there is no exceptions.
In Strict Liability, Exceptions are there.
- Case Examples: – Absolute Liability: – “M.C.Mehta v. Union of India”
The Bhopal gas tragedy
Due to its strategic position and excellent transportation options, the US corporation Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) decided to build a pesticide plant in the crowded Bhopal area in 1970. Light industrial and commercial activities rather than hazardous development were to be carried out on the designated site in the city.
The production facility due to a decline in the market for pesticides, Selvin only produced 25% as much in 1984. In light of the decreasing output, UCIL intends to disassemble and relocate the primary production equipment to a different nation as a result of the productivity loss.
However, despite the plant’s sustained production, safety requirements have received the lowest priority due to minimal profitability. The local government was aware of lesser standards, but it disagreed with strict restrictions in a failing sector that employed many people.
The city was swallowed up by a massive amount of methyl isocyanide on December 3, 1984, around 1 p.m. Due to the intake of those toxic gases, a significant number of people and animals perished within a short period of time.
According to a source, 3,787 people perished immediately. In the neighbouring hospitals, there were a lot of patients and incompetent doctors. 10,000 people died in the first five days, and 15,000 to 20,000 died prematurely over the following ten years.
Many of the survivors suffered from acute multi-system morbidity, with their eyes and lungs attacking vital organs. This was roughly measured by the ICMR. Inhalation poisoning affects 62.58% of the people in Bhopal.
The morbidity levels among those who lived for the following 25 years varied.
When the hospitals began to accept patients, they had no idea what they were dealing with or the therapy they desired. The doctors still didn’t know how to treat this poison. If the government had more knowledge, the problem might have been handled better.
The UCC refused to provide information on the precise make-up of the. The details of the composition of the leaked gas weren’t disclosed by UCC.
Consequences of the disaster
After the incident, the UCC began to distance itself from its Indian subsidiary in an effort to shift blame and accountability to UCIL. Additionally, the plant’s operations were suspended.
Thousands of humans and animals have died as a result of the gas leak, and the following generation has been impacted.
Numerous ocular, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and reproductive diseases have affected individuals. Expecting women, gave birth to infants with foetal deficiency and several faced early puberty, these were among those injured.
The community also suffered harm as a result. Even if this caused deaths, the organisation refused to accept responsibility. During plant operating hours, there used to be a lot of rubbish dumped both within and outside the factory.
Following the tragedy, the UCC started to separate from its Indian affiliate in an effort to place the blame and responsibility on UCIL. The plant’s activities were additionally halted.
The gas leak caused the deaths of thousands of people and animals, and it also had an effect on future generations. People have been impacted by several gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, ophthalmic, and reproductive illnesses. Among those hurt were expectant mothers who had abortions, went through early puberty, and gave birth to children who had foetal deficiencies.
Additionally, the neighbourhood was harmed as a result. The organisation refused to take responsibility, even if it resulted in fatalities. There used to be a lot of trash dumped inside and outside the factory during plant operating hours.
The Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985 was passed by the government on March 29, 1985, in response to the increasing number of court cases. The Bhopal Act granted the federal government the sole authority to represent and act on behalf of anyone who may have rights regarding the Bhopal gas spill (in India or overseas).
This encouraged the Central Government to act as the parens patriae for those impacted by gas leaks. The government is somewhat to blame for the unfortunate situation due to its investments in UCIL, according to sentence 1. The government’s move was condemned as an attempt to avoid responsibility.
The Supreme Court approved and defended this action, saying that it was the state’s “duty to prevent the victims from taking action against the state”
The Central Government filed a UCC with the Southern District Court of the USA in New York, arguing that since Indian courts were unable to handle the case efficiently, it should be decided by American courts.
To accept the settlement, the corporation has pushed for an Indian legal process, which is probably more expensive than one in a US court. The court dismissed the accusations as forum non-convenience.
“The Union of India filed a lawsuit in September 1986 before the Bhopal District Court seeking provisional damages in the amount of 3.5 billion rupees, which the High Court of Madhya Pradesh later reduced to 2.5 billion rupees.”
UCC was ordered by the Court to pay $470 billion in order to fully resolve all claims, rights, and obligations related to the Bhopal gas tragedy (approximately 750 crore rupees). The settlement process resulted in the completion of all civil proceedings and the dismissal of all criminal charges.
The government first requested 3 billion dollars in compensation, but the business only agreed to pay out 470 million. For those who lost family members and loved ones in that catastrophe, the compensation is insufficient.
The quashing of the criminal and payment numbers has drawn harsh criticism. Many petitions were revived and re-energised by the Supreme Court in 1989, which also ruled that if compensation is cut, the government will cover the shortfall.
In the first five years of the 1990 plan, the Central Government granted 258 crores in funding for the victims of the health, industrial, social, and environmental crises.
Seven former employees, including the former UCIL Chairman, were given 2 years in prison and a US$2,000 fine in June 2010 for carelessness in Bhopal.
Analysis of absolute liability in reference to the Bhopal gas tragedy
Now we try to analyse the use of the doctrine of absolute liability in this case. An escape which is crucial in the tort of strict liability, which is crucial in strict liability, may be disregarded in this situation because it prevents liability of absolute in nature as incidents frequently occur where dangerous things, like poisonous fumes, escape (but do not do so outside the industry’s premises) might hurt any employees there.
The workers’ right to compensation in this situation won’t be ignored. The scope of this principle must therefore be used in a larger context, excluding the escape component.
When strict liability is in effect, damages are compensated in accordance with the kind and extent of losses incurred; but, when absolute culpability is present, damages must be of an exemplary type. The sum chosen should be more than the harm done because industrial hazardous accidents frequently result in large numbers of fatalities as well as the loss of property and the environment.
Supreme Court in its judgement UCC vs UOI (1989), opined that this case concerns legal limits to be envisaged, in the vital interests of the protection of constitutional rights of the citizenry and of the environment, the permissibility of ultra-hazardous technologies and to prescribe absolute a deterrent standards of liability if harm is caused by such enterprises.
Parliament passed the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985 to grant the Central Government specific authority to ensure that claims arising from or related to the Bhopal gas leak disaster are handled swiftly, effectively, fairly, and in the claimants’ best interests, as well as for matters incidental thereto.
Due to this Act, the Union Government became the plaintiff’s counsel for the catastrophe victims and was given the authority to bring lawsuits on their behalf. The Government of India and Union Carbide also reached an out-of-court settlement, which set the company’s obligation to pay $470 million as the full and complete settlement of all pending claims, rights, and responsibilities. The damages were exemplary and based on principles of absolute liability.
In this project, we looked into the details of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, its factual background and the legal contest afterwards. We established the meaning and elements of “Absolute Liability”. To conclude, the idea of Absolute Liability was upheld during the infamous Bhopal Gas Tragedy, which occurred between the nights of December 2 and 3, 1984.
The Union Carbide Company’s disastrous methyl-isocyanide (MIC) gas leak in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, claimed the lives of over three thousand people. Animals, plants, and property were all severely damaged. Because the repercussions were so severe, children in those regions are still born with deformities.
A lawsuit was filed in the American New York District Court since the Union Carbide Company in Bhopal was a subsidiary of the Union Carbide Company with headquarters in the United States. The case was dismissed due to a lack of jurisdiction.
The Gas Disaster in Bhopal (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985 was applied and the business was sued for damages on behalf of the victims. The court held the corporation guilty and invoked the “Absolute Liability” doctrine to hold it accountable and order it to compensate the victims.
“Law of Torts by R.K. Bangia”
“Ratanlal and Dhirajlal”
“SC to begin hearing in Bhopal gas tragedy: All you need to know about 36-yr-old case by D Roy”
 “M.C. MEHTA & ANR. vs. RAM FOODS AND FERTILISER INDUSTRIES AND OTHERS [AIR 1987 SC 965]”
 “(1868) LR 3 HL 330”
 “ROY, D., (2020). SC to begin hearing in Bhopal gas tragedy: All you need to know about 36-yr-old
case. Retrieved 12 December 2020, from https://theprint.in/india/sc-to-begin-hearing-in-bhopal-gas-
This article has been authored by Asutosh Pattnaik & Anwesh Kumar Sarangi, students at National Law University, Odisha.