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Case Analysis: M.C Mehta Vs. Union Of India (Vizag Gas Leak)

The Oleum gas leak was one of the most horrendous incidents. It was similar in nature with the horrific Bhopal Gas Tragedy. The Bhopal Gas tragedy had a heinous and long term impact on the citizens. This is the aftermath of Oleum gas leak which happened in Delhi. The complicated legal proceedings around the Bhopal Gas Tragedy is sadly an example of what should not be done in this situation. Again the question in the case was the magnitude of the liability of such industry owners.

Court: Supreme Court of India
Title of the case: MC Mehta v. Union of India
Decided on: 20 December 1986 - Citation: AIR 1987 965

December 1985, large amounts of the dangerous oleum gas leaked from one of the 'caustic chlorine' units of Shri ram Food and Fertilizer Industry. The chemical industry had been a cause of nuisance for a long time: all units were set up in a single complex, surrounded by a thickly populated area.

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed by MC Mehta calling for the immediate closure of the plant and its subsequent relocation. There were few more leaks which happened in the factory. After which the claims of compensation were filed by the victims, by the Delhi Legal Aid & Advice Board and the Delhi Bar Association. The SC at first held that the case should be referred to higher bench as it involves substantial law and issues related to Article 21 and Article 32.

  • What is the liability in such cases?
  • Could the industry be allowed operations?
  • How should the liability and amount of compensation be determined in such cases?
  • How does Article 32 of the Constitution extend in these cases?
  • Whether the rule of Absolute Liability or Ryland v Fletcher is to be followed?

Justice J. Bhagwati showed his concern about the issue Bhagwati stated the proposal to eliminate toxic and hazardous factories could not be followed because they still contribute to improving the quality of life. The establishment of these industries are necessary for the social and economic development of the country.

The court held that all exceptions to the rule set out in Ryland's v. Fletcher are not applicable to hazardous industries. The Court adopted the principle of absolute responsibility. The exception available for this case was the act of a third party or natural calamity but the court interpreted that as the leakage was caused due to human and mechanical errors the possibility of an act of third party and natural calamity is out of scope and hence the principle of absolute liability is applicable here.

An industry that engages in hazardous activities that pose a potential danger to the health and safety of those who work and live nearby is obliged to ensure that there is no harm to anybody. This industry must perform its operations with the highest safety requirements, and the industry must be completely responsible to compensate for any harm caused by them, as a part of the social cost for carrying such hazardous activities on its premises.

The principles found in this case were:
  • The Central Pollution Control Board appoints an inspector to check that emissions levels are in compliance with the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and the Air (prevention and control of pollution) Act, 1981.
  • To create a safety committee for employees.
  • Industry to publicize about the consequences and the proper treatment of chlorine.
  • To train and instruct the employees regarding the safety of the plant through audio-visual services and to install loudspeakers to alert neighbours in case of gas leakage.
  • Staff to use protective equipment, such as helmets and belts.
  • That the employees of Shriram furnish the undertaking of the Chairman of Delhi Cloth Mills Limited that they will be "personally liable" for paying compensation for any death or injury in the event of gas escape resulting in death or injury to staff or people living in the vicinity.

Reforms brought aftermath

The concept of absolute liability was originated in this case as the exceptions which are there in strict liability leaves sufficient amount of risk. The court also performed the function of an extra-parliamentary body by insisting that the concept of absolute liability be used and thus set a precedent for future cases to come.

The recent vizag leak case is one of the examples where this case of used as a precedent in terms of the extent of liability of employers in such cases. The reforms brought by this case can be seen from the latest case of the Vizag Gas Leak Case where LG Polymers would be held responsible and there is no requirement to show that the leak was caused by negligence. The mere fact that the leak happened from their plant is enough.

The court made the decision in such a manner so as not to hinder the economic development of the country and also to ensure that there should not be any gross injustice to the victims. This case acted as a guiding force for the implementation of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 The case set a precedent for all the industries to establish more stringent safety measures.

The gas leak case of Shri ram was also noteworthy because it was the first time that a company had been held exclusively responsible for an incident and had to pay compensation irrespective of its claims in defense. The reasons for the decision have also been found not only on a legal basis but also on a scientific basis, which is why a special judicial function has been undertaken by the Supreme Court.

The decision was made also in view of the importance of industrialization and the fact that it may eventually result in accidents. The decision was also determined considering the terms of the need for industrialization and the inevitable possibility and the impact of injuries. In general, it was a rational decision, taking all social, economic, and legal factors into account, which made the Supreme Court a defender of the environment and public rights.


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