September 28, 2021

Concept of Absolute Liability

Law of Torts

Introduction

The principle of absolute liability was evolved in India in the case of M.C Mehta v. Union of India popularly known as Oleum gas leak case. This is one of the landmark judgements of the Indian Judiciary. We have always followed the British rules and regulations even after Independence. Before the evolution of this doctrine, India is been following the strict liability doctrine. But the problem with that doctrine was it has so many exceptions that the guilty one always uses one of the exceptions and was done away with the crime committed.

After the Bhopal leakage case, many people have lost their lives, there was havoc in the city of Bhopal after the gas leak as many people have lost their lives and in many people were affected with the fatal diseases that lasted through the generations. So, the Court decided to depart from the strict liability principle and develop a new principle that is an absolute liability (strict liability – exceptions). This rule was laid down by the Supreme Court which is so much wider with respect to the rules that was laid down by the House of Lords in the case of Ryland v. Fetcher ( When a defendant is guilty he is not allowed to plead any defence, it is a strict liability with no exception).

Concept of Absolute Liability

Definition: 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 liable to pay compensation to the aggrieved parties[1].

Essential Elements of Absolute Liability-

1. Dangerous Thing- The liability will only arise if there is any dangerous thing that has been escaped from the owner’s land. And the thing is likely to cause damage and can injure any person or person’s property on its escape. In various cases of strict liability, the following things have been held dangerous that is- a large pool of water, electricity, gas, explosives, fumes, rusty wires etc.

2. Escape Any dangerous thing which is escaped from the defendant’s control and caused damaged to the plaintiff’s property or injured any person will come under the ambit of absolute liability. In the case of Read vs Lyons and Co[2].- In this case, the plaintiff was an employee in the defendant’s manufacturing company. While doing her duty a piece of manufactured exploded and she suffered severe harm. Here the court held- that the plaintiff was doing her duty and the accident occurred within the premises and course of employment. It was held the defendant cannot escape from his liability and the strict liability principle is not applicable in this case. The defendant was held liable.

3. Non-Natural use of landIf water is collected only for domestic use then it is not called as non-natural use but if it is collected in large quantity like in a reservoir then it is termed as non-natural use of land. In the case of Ryland v. Fletcher[3] it was held that collecting water in the large quantity amounts to non-natural use of land. The basic line which is drawn between a natural or non-natural use of land is to keep in mind the surrounding and social conditions and will a reasonable person would do? When a person is growing tree in her land that is the natural use of land but when he/she starts growing poisonous tree then it is termed as non-natural use of land.

4. Mischief- To make the person liable under this principle, the plaintiff at first needs to show that the defendant had done the non-natural use of land and escaped the dangerous thing which he has on his land which resulted in the injury further[4].

In the case of Charing Cross Electric Supply Co. vs Hydraulic Power Co[5].- The defendant was assigned to supply water at different places. The defendant was also required to hold minimum pressure but the defendant failed to do so which results in the bursting of the pipeline at different places. It caused heavy damages to the plaintiff. The defendant was held liable in this case even was not at fault.

Scope of Rule of Absolute Liability

In almost all the cases the rule of absolute liability is considered as an exception of the law. After the catastrophic accident of Oleum gas leak tragedy, the act of The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991 was introduced. Its objective was to compensate the victims of the case where the hazardous substances or handling of the dangerous substance is involved. The main motto behind the act was to create public liability insurance fund which will eventually be used to compensate the victims[6]

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References


[1] Shramanadwibedi, Strict and Absolute Liability, Available at http://www.legalservicesindia.com/article/2155/Strict-and-Absolute-Liability.html#:~:text=%2D%20Blackburn%2C%20J.,Absolute%20Liability,compensation%20to%20the%20aggrieved%20parties.

[2] (1947) A.C. 156

[3] (1868).

[4] By Krishnendra Joshi, Concept of Absolute Liability, May 14, 2019, Available at https://blog.ipleaders.in/concept-absolute-liability/.

[5] (1914) 3 KB 772.

[6]’ Ibid.


Author Details: Riddhi Daga (Hidayatullah National Law University)

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