Rule of absolute liability with reference to MC Mehta vs UOI

The definition of responsibility in tort is based on the fundamental rule or presumption that, though precise provisions are absent, it is wrongful to do injury to other people. In statute, where an individual is financially and legally accountable for something, an individual is considered to be legally responsible, and the end results are the cause of the individual’s action or omission. In order to assess blame, this cause-effect relationship is necessary, since liability should not be affixed generally without a cause or source for the wrong-the ‘fault’ element is adequate to attribute damage and demand relief.

In cases of Strict and Absolute liability, the concept of “No Fault” liability prevails. This means, there are cases where a person may be blamed for any damage even if he is not reckless in causing the same, or there is no intention of causing the damage, or sometimes he may have even made some constructive attempts to prevent the same.[1]

Often, in other words, the statute acknowledges “No-Fault” liability. Which are as follows:

Strict Liability

Liability which does not depend on actual negligence or intent to harm. Along with intention and motive, the aforementioned concept of ‘fault’ is absent, in the classic image of strict liability. This is because certain operations are so risky that they pose threats to individuals and property, and in the event of any injury, liability must be assumed by some party. The statute makes it possible to carry out inherently dangerous practices for the sake of common utility, but only in compliance with protective precautions and the strict liability doctrine, deemed so because the liability exists with or without the defendant’s negligence.

Exceptions of Strict Liability

  • Plaintiff’s own fault
  • Consent of the plaintiff
  • Act of God
  • Fault of third part
  • Part of a statutory duty

Absolute Liability

Absolute liability shall be imposed on persons whose individual acts, or failures to act, lead to losses to third parties, such as physical harm or damage to property.

In some cases involving particularly dangerous practices, even where no injury has been intended or where the individual may not be accused of lack of care towards others, they will be found responsible for committing an absolute liability tort.

Instances where absolute liability is levied by law, and irrespective of liability, any individual is considered liable in the given situations:

  • When one of the workers is injured whilst working.
  • When one holds or maintains animals that are feral or dangerous and inflict property harm or physical injury.
  • If a person stocks or creates bombs or hazardous liquids and an explosion occurs, resulting in damage to other persons or their belongings.
  • Whenever a person is engaged in the network of trade of those goods that are found out to be defective or harmful to others.


Each of the aforementioned circumstances are considered  potentially harmful, which is why the rule of absolute liability extends to the persons in charge, regardless of whether they had made some move to avert the incident or whether it was an accident.

Absolute Liability Issues to Consider

While absolute liability is enforced in the circumstances described above, there are some exemptions and special considerations in strict liability tort law:

  • With regard to explosive blasting and handling, if living in a major city, the tortfeasor may be considered responsible, but if they live in a remote village or in a ranch, they may avoid total responsibility.
  • Usually, the absolute liability stemming from owning wild animals does not apply to domesticated animals, such as dogs, cats, horses, sheep, cattle, etc. However, if a dog attacks anyone, the owner of a dangerous dog that knew about the inherent propensity of their dog and did not take any action to control it, could be held accountable.
  • The injured claimant must provide proof that the product is faulty and that the fault is the chief cause of the injuries in order to place absolute liability on the product manufacturer.

Absolute Liability in India

In India, absolute obligation is a concept of tort liability that allows absolute liability to be binding.

If a company is engaged in a risky or highly unsafe operation that results in injuries to someone due to an accident in the course of such dangerous or inherently harmful behaviour resulting, for example, in the escape of poison gas, the company is solely and absolutely responsible for compensating all those injured by the accident and that duty is not immune any of  the exceptions which operate vis-à-vis the tortuous principle of strict liability under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher.[2]

In other words, absolute liability is, without any exception, strict liability. The Supreme Court in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (Oleum Gas Leak Case). set down this liability norm. 

Following the December, 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy (Union Carbide Corporation vs. Union of India), the Indian Judiciary sought to make a concerted attempt to impose better protection for victims. Therefore, the Doctrine of Absolute Liability was emerged in the Oleum Gas leak incident. It can be seen to be a potent legal instrument towards unethical firms who ignore health risks for the public.

Bhopal Gas Tragedy

In the tragic Bhopal Gas Disaster[3] that happened on the night of 2nd and 3rd December, 1984, this doctrine was upheld. The emission of toxic methyl-iso-cyanide (MIC) gas from the Union Carbide Company in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, resulted in a massive tragedy, killing more than three thousand people. The environment, assets of the people were heavily damaged. The impacts were so intense that even presently, infants are provided with abnormalities in those areas. As the Union Carbide Corporation in Bhopal was a division of the U.S. based Union Carbide Corporation, a lawsuit was filed in the American New York District Court. Due to lack of jurisdiction, the case was denied there. The Government of India passed the 1985 Bhopal Gas Tragedy (Processing of Claims) Act and, on behalf of the claimants, sued the corporation for damages. The Court held the corporation responsible by implementing the ‘Absolute Liability’ principle and required it to pay restitution to the claimant.

MC Mehta v. Union of India  

In the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India[4], the absolute liability concept was developed, and took strict liability yet another notch further by implying that an enterprise involved in a dangerous or inherently dangerous activity is absolutely liable for and to compensate all those affected by the accident for the damage resulting from the operation of such activity.

Facts: Extreme leakage of Oleum gas occurred in one of the units of Shriram Foods and Fertilizers Industries belonging to Delhi Cloth Mills Ltd., on 4th and 6th December, 1985 in Delhi. As a result, a lawyer who served in the Tis Hazari Court died and several others were influenced by the same. A proposed appeal was placed before the court by means of public interest litigation (PIL).

Issue: It was contested that if all the accidents arising from the acts of the major factories met with the strict liability rule, they would slip under the loopholes and get away with crime with the injuries they sustained in their operation’s actions.

Judgment: It was observed that the same instance was happening second time of large-scale poison gas leakage in India within a span of one year in India, as more than 3,000 people were dead a year before as a result of gas leakage from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, and lakhs of others had been exposed to various other forms of diseases. If the strict liability provision laid down in Rylands v. Fletcher was extended to all alike cases, then those who had developed “dangerous and potentially dangerous” businesses in and near heavily populated areas could avoid the liability for the mayhem created by pleading for an exception. A new law, the “Absolute Liability” rule, as formulated by the then Chief Justice of India, PN Bhagwati, was thus established by the Supreme Court.

The new law was expressly deemed not to be subject to any of the exceptions under the Rylands v. Fletcher law. The Court has given two reasons which explain the rule:

  • The company carrying out such risky and potentially dangerous private benefit operation has a social duty to compensate those suffering from it, and to bear costs such as overhead; and
  • The business itself has the capacity to spot and safeguard from those hazards and vulnerabilities.

The Court clarified its stance in the following words: ‘If an organization is allowed to carry out, for its benefit, any risky or inherently risky operation, the statute may assume that such approval is conditional on the organization covering the cost and the expense of any tragedy resulting out of such hazardous or inherently risky activity. This idea is also sustainable because the organization also has the capacity to locate and mitigate against risks or threats and to advise against potential dangers.

The Court has established that the compensation payable should be associated with the willingness of the undertaking to have a deterrence effect and that the bigger and more successful undertakings should be able to afford a higher amount of compensation for the harm they have incurred.


In Absolute Liability only those enterprises shall be held liable which are involved in hazardous or inherently dangerous activities. The escape of a dangerous thing from one’s own land is not necessary. Absolute liability is applicable to those injured within the premise and outside the premise. The rule of Absolute liability does not have any exceptions, unlike the rule of Strict Liability. The rule elucidated upon in Ryland v. Fletcher applies only to the non-natural use of land, but absolute liability applies even to the natural use of land. If a person uses a dangerous substance and if such substance escapes, he shall be held liable even though he has taken proper care. The extent of damages depends on the magnitude and financial capability of the institute. The Supreme Court also stated that the enterprise must be held to be under an “obligation to ensure that the hazardous or inherently dangerous activities in which it is engaged must be conducted with the highest standards of safety and security and if any harm results on account of such negligent activity, the enterprise/institute must be held absolutely liable to compensate for any damage caused and no opportunity is given to answer the enterprise to say that it had taken all reasonable care and that the harm caused without any negligence on his part”.


[1] R.K Bangia, Law of Torts 324 (24th Edn., 2017).

[2]  L.R.(1868) 3 H.L. 330.

[3] Union Carbide Corporation v. Union of India, (1991) 4 SCC 548.

[4] A.I.R.(1987) S.C. 1086.


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