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Basics of Strict Liability and Absolute Liability

Strict liability is a concept that holds a party responsible for their actions or products, without the plaintiff having to prove negligence or fault. In Strict Liability, a person may be held liable for some harm even if there is no negligence on his part or he has no intention to inflict such harm i.e. even if the person has taken necessary precautions, he would be made liable under the doctrine of strict liability.  That is why strict liability is also known as ‘no-fault liability’.
According to the rule of strict liability, if a person brings a Dangerous thing on his land that is likely to do mischief if it escapes, he would be liable for the damage caused by such escape even if there was no negligence on his part.

The Rule of Strict Liability (in Rylands v. Fletcher)

The rule of strict liability was introduced in a landmark decision of the House of Lords in Rylands v. Fletcher in 1868. 

Rylands v. Fletcher[1] – 

FACTS: The defendant got a reservoir constructed through independent contractors, over his land to provide water to his mill. There were old disused shafts under the reservoir. The independent contractor didn’t block them, due to which when water was filled in the reservoir burst the coal mines of the plaintiff and caused damages to him.
HELD: The court explained, when somebody keeps something on his property for his benefit it should not escape and affect others and hence, the defendant was made liable for his negligent act.
 

Essentials of Strict Liability

Dangerous Thing

According to the rule of strict liability, there must be a dangerous thing. Now, it becomes very important to make a distinction between what is dangerous and what is not. So, a dangerous thing is that which may or is likely to cause damage if it gets escaped. Some common examples of things which can be termed as dangerous are electricity, Poisonous Trees, Gas, Explosives, Water(as in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher) and many more.

Escape

To apply the rule of strict liability, the dangerous thing must escape. For example, if the branch of a poisonous tree reaches out to the neighbour’s land and neighbour’s cattle eats the leaves from that branch, then it amounts to escape. It must be made clear that if the cattle voluntary go to the owner lands and chew the leaves of the poisonous tree, then it does not amounts to escape of a dangerous thing. To better understand this essential, let us study a case which was decided through this essential.
 

Read v. Lyons and Co.[2] – 

FACTS: The plaintiff was an employee in the defendant’s ammunition factory. While the plaintiff was performing her duties in the defendant’s premises, a shell, which was being manufactured there, exploded and injured the plaintiff.
HELD: The court held that even though the shell was a dangerous thing, there was no evidence of its escape outside the defendant’s premises and hence, the defendant was held not liable.

Non-natural use of land

Lastly, there must be a non-natural use of land. To called the use to be of non-natural, it must be of special use, bringing with the increased danger to others, and not merely the ordinary use of land or such a use can be categorised for the overall advantage of the community. This essential may be further understood by way of case law–

T.C. Balakrishnan Menon v. T.R. Subramaniam[3] – 

FACTS: An explosive made out of a coconut shell crammed with an explosive substance, rather than rising into the sky and exploding there, ran at a tangent, fell amidst the crowd and exploded, causing serious injuries to the respondent.
HELD: It was held that the explosive, which was made out of a coconut shell was a dangerous thing and its use even on a day of the festival was a “non-natural” use of land because under the Indian Explosives Act, for manufacturing and storing explosives substances, licences and permission have to be taken from the prescribed authorities.

Exceptions to Strict Liability

The strict liability rule doesn’t apply in cases involving the subsequent exceptions:

Plaintiff’s Own Fault

If the plaintiff suffers any damage by his own intrusion into the defendant’s property, he cannot claim for the damage so caused. A case law decided on the basis of this exception illustrated below

Pointing v. Noakes[4] – 

FACTS: The plaintiff’s horse entered the defendant’s property and died after eating the leaves of a poisonous tree which was implanted in the defendant’s property.
HELD: The Court held that it was a wrongful intrusion and there was no escape of the poisonous tree and hence, the defendant was not to be held strictly liable for such loss. 

Act of God

An act of God is a sudden, direct and irresistible act of nature that nobody can reasonably prepare for. It is outside the control of any human agency. For example – tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, extraordinary rainfall, etc. are acts of God. If the escape of the dangerous thing is a result of any supernatural force caused without any human intervention, the defence of Act of God can be pleaded.

Consent of the Plaintiff

When the plaintiff voluntarily exposes himself to any harm, then, he cannot have a claim against the harm suffered. It is basically the defence of ‘Volenti non-fit injuria’ taken by the defendant in the court.

Act of a third party

According to this essential, if the harm which has been caused to the plaintiff is because of the act of a stranger, who has no connection to the defendant. In such cases, the rule of strict liability will not apply.

Statutory Authority

If any act is done under the authority of a statute like the government of a country or a state, it acts as a defence to an action for tort. To further understand the exception of statutory authority, let us analyze a case law – 

Green v. Chelsea Waterworks Co.[5] – 

FACTS: the defendant’s company was under a statutory order to maintain a continuous supply of water. Pipe belonging to the company burst without any negligence on the part of the defendants and flooded the plaintiff’s premises with water.
HELD: It was held that the company would not be liable as it was engaged in the performance of statutory duty.

The Bhopal Gas Leak Tragedy

Union Carbide Corporation v. Union of India[6] – 
FACTS: On the night of December 2-3, 1984, a mass disaster was caused by the leakage of about 40 tons of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) and other toxic gases into the air of Bhopal from a plant of Union Carbide India Ltd. UCIL is a subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation(UCC) which is a multinational company of USA.
The toxic gases became the reason for about 3 thousand deaths and serious injuries were sustained to about 6 lakh people.
HELD: The court rejected all contentions and all UCC was held Absolutely Liable. The Supreme Court passed an order on February 14 and 15, 1989 directing UCC to pay a sum of Rupees 470 Million U.S. Dollars.

Differences between Strict and Absolute Liability

Though the principle of Absolute Liability was somewhat derived from the Doctrine of Strict Liability, it is subjected to some differences. Also, it is very necessary to differentiate between these two principles in order to have a clear idea about which principle should be applied in certain situations. There are some distinctions between the two principles which are discussed as follows:
 [1] Strict Liability, this principle evolved from a case Rylands v. Fletcher whereas The Rule of Absolute Liability principle developed in the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (Oleum Gas Leak Case)
[2] For a Tort of Strict Liability, any person can be made liable. but in case of absolute Liability, only an enterprise can be made liable.
[3] As per Strict Liability principle, Liability arises by the non-natural use of land. in case of absolute, liability arises by any hazardous activity by an enterprise.
[4]The principle of Strict Liability is subjected to certain exceptions. whereas in Absolute Liability there is no exceptions.
[5] It is generally perceived that substantial damages are awarded for the commission of the Tort under this liability. whereas in absolute, Along with substantial damages, exemplary damages are also awarded.

Aftermath

The UCC began attempts to dissociate itself from the responsibility for the gas leak. It tried to shift the culpability to UCIL. In its argument, UCC stated that the plant was operated and managed by UCIL which is an Indian subsidiary. It also made attempts to escape the liability through various exceptions to the rule of strict liability. But, the Court understood their intention to escape the liability and hence evolved the concept of ‘Absolute Liability’ in the case M.C. Mehta v. Union of India[7] (popularly known as Oleum Gas Leak Case) which took place shortly after the Bhopal Gas Leak Case. The principle laid down by the Supreme Court is as follows:
 
“Where an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and harm results to anyone on account of an accident within the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity resulting for instance, in the escape of toxic gas, the enterprise is strictly and absolutely susceptible to compensate all those that are suffering from 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.”
 
Union Carbide Corporation also tried to negotiate with the government outside the court but all its attempts failed. UCC also asked to directly deal with the victims but were refrained by the court from doing so. Also, there were many cases filed against UCC and it became difficult for the court and the government to deal with so many cases, so, the Government of India framed “The Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985. Section 3 of the Act provided an exclusive right to the government to represent and act in place of every person who had made a claim or is entitled to make a claim arising from the gas leak.

Vizag Gas Leak

FACTS: On the morning of 7 May 2020, an industrial accident occurred at the chemical plant of L.G. Polymers in R.R. Venkatapuram village on the outskirts of Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India. The leaked gas spread over a radius of about 3 kilometres as a result of which, 12 people died and more than 1000 became sick after being exposed to the gas[8].
After conducting initial investigations, it is found that an accident was likely to be the result of improper maintenance of units storing the Styrene Monomer. The Andhra Government has announced an ex-gratia of Rs. 1 crore to the family of the deceased and around 30 crores for the injured people.
Now, the question which arises here is that whether L.G. polymers be held Strictly Liable or Absolutely Liable (as in the case of Oleum Gas Leak). As per the observation made by the Supreme Court, an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and poses a threat to the health and safety of harms anyone due to that activity, it must be held absolutely liable for such activity. But, in order to hold L.G. Polymers liable absolutely, it is important to determine whether it is an inherently dangerous industry or not. If not, it cannot come under the purview of Absolute Liability but can be booked under Strict Liability.
 

Conclusion

Keeping in mind various gas leak incidents which took place in the past, it is important for the government to come up with some stringent laws and provisions which disallows the enterprises to escape their liabilities. Also, the life lives of human beings must be their first priority which is quite seen in past incidents. Seeing the delays in providing compensation to the victims in Bhopal Gas Leak Case, it becomes more important that the Vizag gas leak victims be compensated as early as possible. This would reinstate their faith in justice and the judiciary.

References

1.UKHL 1, (1868) LR 3 HL 330
2. [1946] 2 All ER 471,
3. AIR 1968 Ker 151
4. (1894) 2 QB 281
5. (1894) 70 LT 547
6. 1992 AIR 248 1991 SCR Supl.
7. 1987 AIR 1086, 1987 SCR (1) 819
8. https://india.mongabay.com/2020/05/years-of-neglect-led-to-vizag-gas-tragedy/
 BY- Lakshya Sharma
Aligarh Muslim University

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