June 15, 2021

Top 9 important case laws on “Liability” under law of torts

Law of Torts

Introduction

According to Winfield ‘Tortious liability arises from the breach of a duty primarily fixed by law; such duty is towards persons generally and its breach is redressable by an action for unliquidated damages.’[1] To have a case of tortious liability, there must be a wrongful act committed by a person, out of which a person suffers some kind of damage. As the law of torts is uncodified one and is developed by judicial interpretations, this concept can also be better explained through case laws. This article discusses 9 important case laws on the same-

Rylands v. Fletcher[2], 1868

The concept of strict liability was first applied by the House of Lords in this case only. In this case, it was observed by the court that there exist certain activities which are inherently so dangerous in nature that merely carrying them on poses a duty on the person who does so, to compensate for any damage irrespective of any carelessness on their part. The rationale behind imposing such liability is the foreseeable risk involved in such activities.

Here defendant who was a mill owner had appointed certain contractors (apparently with requisite skills) to construct reservoirs in his land to provide water in the mill. During the work, the contractors came across certain old shafts in the defendant’s land. Such shafts were connected with the plaintiff’s mine but such was not ascertainable as the shafts appeared to be filled with the earth. As soon as the reservoirs where filled, the shafts broke down and thereby flooded the mines of the plaintiff.

The court held that building such a reservoir was at the risk of defendants and in course of it, if any mishap occurred, defendants would be liable for such escape of materials.

Crowhurst v. Amersham Burial Board[3], 1878

In this case, the court was asked to decide whether planting a poisonous tree can amount to non-natural use of the land, so that defendant can be made strictly liable as per Ryland’s case. The court answered affirmatively as such tree was not of ordinary nature and moreover the branches of the tree were “escaped” to the plaintiff’s land, nibbling which the horse of the plaintiff died. Thus the defendant was made strictly liable as the risk was of foreseeable nature.

Bolton v. Stone[4], 1951

This case involves tort of negligence where the court was faced with the issue to determine how a reasonable person would behave and when there will be a breach of duty to establish a case of negligence.

In this case, the claimant was hit by a ball from the neighboring cricket field and bought an action against them. It was found by the court that the field was arranged in a way that was protected by 17-foot gap between the ground and the top of the surrounding fence. Moreover, such an incident of the ball crossing the fence and hitting a person was rare. Thus House of Lords concluded that there was no breach of duty on part of cricket club as they took necessary precautions. Thus defendants were held not to be negligent.

M.C Mehta v. UOI[5], 1987 (Oleum Gas leak Case)

In this case, our Hon’ble Supreme Court has laid down the principle of Absolute Liability. This is the same concept as no-fault liability or strict liability but it’s just that the exception available in the case of strict liability is not present here.

In this case, a petition was filed by a socio-activist lawyer seeking closure of Shriram Industries after leakage of oleum gas which affected many people. The Apex Court evolved the rule of Absolute liability i.e. if any person is engaged in an inherently hazardous or dangerous activity, and if harm is caused due to an accident related to such activity, the person would be held absolutely liable with no exception available to him.

Indian council for Enviro-Legal Action v. UOI[6], 1996

This is a case, where court applied the principle of absolute liability to protect the environment and lives of the people associated with it. Here a petition was filed by an environmentalist organization to draw the court’s attention towards issues faced by the people of village Bichhari (Udaipur, Rajasthan) as being in proximity to a chemical plant. It was found that the plant was releasing un-treated toxic wastewater and sludge in open fields of the village, which polluted the soil and groundwater. Further, the pollution caused various diseases and deaths among people living in the near area. Even the matter was raised in the parliament but to no avail.

The court concluded that as the plant is engaged in a hazardous activity which resulted in causing harm to the number of people, they are to be made absolutely liable. The court gave the authority to Central government to decide and recover the compensation amount from them after assessment.

P & O Steam Navigation Co. V. Secretary of State,[7] 1861

The pre-constitution case where the court accepted that the doctrine of “King can do no wrong” was applicable to East India Company and thus one cannot be made liable for the harm caused by an act perform under sovereign authority.

In this case, the servants of the plaintiff company were met with an accident due to the fault of the servants of the government. But the government servants were on duty and carrying sovereign function. Considering this the court granted them immunity from any tortious liability.

State of Rajasthan v. Vidyawati,[8] 1962

This was the first case before our Supreme Court of India post-Independence dealing with the doctrine of Sovereign immunity. Here the driver of the jeep which was maintained and owned by the Rajasthan government negligently causes injury to pedestrians. The defense of sovereign immunity was claimed. But the court efficiently rejected such and held that merely by driving a government jeep one cannot claim sovereign immunity. Moreover, the court stated that “The old feudalistic notion of justice cannot be sustained” where the state has a welfare role to play.

Kasturila V. State of Uttar Pradesh[9], 1965

In this case, the plaintiff was arrested by three policemen on a suspicion that he was carrying stolen property with him (which was gold and silver). The plaintiff got released on bail and was given his silver but the gold was kept in the custody of head constable. Later it was found that the constable fled to Pakistan after misappropriating the gold of the plaintiff. The plaintiff sued the Government as the gold was seized by the Government’s employee and in the course of his employment.

But the court here applied the doctrine of sovereign immunity and not the doctrine of vicarious liability and held that the claim of the plaintiff is not sustainable as the police officer who is indeed the employee of the state was exercising his power as per the sovereign authority.

Cassidy v. Minister of Health[10], 1951

This case deals with the doctrine of vicarious liability, according to which “A master can be held vicariously liable for the act done by his servant in the course of employment.” In the present world the equivalent term of master-servant is employer-employee.

In the present case claimant, fingers become stiff due to negligence of the medical practitioner in the defendant’s hospital. The issue before the court was whether the negligent doctor can be held as an employee, to which the court answered affirmatively. It was held that the mere fact that the worker is engaged in specialized work does not make him less employee, as the power to appoint and fire him still rests with the defendant. Thus the defendant was held vicariously liable.

Conclusion

Thus we discussed different types of tortious liability such as strict liability, absolute liability, and vicarious liability through above case laws. We should just remember that the law of torts has been evolved through case laws and it will continue to do so as Bhagwati J. stated: “We have to evolve new principles and lay down new norms which will adequately deal with new problems which arise in a highly industrialized country”[11].

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References


[1] Winfield and Jolowicz on Tort. 19th Ed.

[2] [1868] UKHL 1.

[3] [1878] LR 4 Ex D 5.

[4] [1951] AC 850.

[5] 1987 AIR 1086.

[6] (1996) 5 SCC281.

[7] (1868-69) 5 Bom. H. C. R. 1.

[8] AIR 1962 SC 933.

[9] 1965 AIR 1039.

[10] [1951] 2 KB 343.

[11] Supra note 5.


Author Details: Akansha Uboveja (Hidayatullah National Law University)

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