Law should be dynamic and keep changing according to the needs of modern
world .It won't be appropriate to use centuries old principles and laws on
present cases and incidents as the world is changing or improving in terms of
technology, economic activities , behaviour, culture and in overall at all
The concept of Absolute liability was also evolved in the same manner where
economic activities and industrialization in today's frame is far different from
what it was in the past .So the principle of 'No Fault Liability' was introduced
which is the base for absolute liability concept.
In India the need for such a principle arose out of unfortunate tragic incidents
like ' Bhopal Gas Leak Case' and 'Oleum Gas Leak case where the Supreme Court of
India stepped in and started to hold this principle of absolute liability which
actually evolved from the principle of ' No Fault liability' in Englishl aw
Now let us see, what is absolute liability principle? and in which cases such
a principle can be applied?
Absolute liability basically means strict liability without exception
So we can have a simple formula for absolute liability ie. Absolute liability =
Strict liability - Exceptions
To understand this better we need to know what is strict liability which is also
known as 'No fault liability
The principle of strict liability is given clearly by House Of Lords in the
famous case of Ryland v. Fletcher.
The defendant, Fletcher ,an owner of a mill, to improve the water supply to his
mill , appointed independent contractors . The contractors while on construction
came across some shafts and passages which they never blocked. When water was
filled in the reservoir.
The water goes through this shafts and passages and flooded the nearby coal mine
of the plaintiff, Rayland and held loss. It was also found from the facts that
the defendant were not informed about these shafts and passages.
The plaintiff sued the defendant for damages. It was held that , even by ruling
out the possibility of defendant being negligent, But he could be held liable
under ' no fault liability principle ' or the principle of strict liability. It
was also stated that , when someone owns inherently dangerous substance in his
premises, deriving benefit out of it and if it causes mischief to someone else,
then such a person can be held liable regardless of the care he had taken to
avoid such an event
Its is through this case the principle of strict liability was first established
which later on formed an another derived principle called absolute liability
So the definition for absolute liability can be derived as:
When an industry or enterprise is involved in an inherently dangerous activity
or using hazardous substances and deriving commercial benefit out of them, and
such an activity is capable of causing any damage,then the company officials
will be absolutely liable to pay compensation to the aggrieved parties without
They cannot plead that there was no negligence from their part and reasonable
care was taken to prevent such an accident .In case of Absolute liability they
neither pleaddefences like 'Act Of God' nor ' Act of Stranger which can be done
in case of strict liability. This defence component primarily differentiate
absolute liability from strict liability.
In India this principle was firstly held by Supreme Court of India in case of
MC Mehta V. Union of India
, also called oleum gas leak case and others which
serve as a land mark judgement in the history of byIndian judiciary.
In the month of December 1985, There was a leakage of oleum gas from one of the
units of Shriram Food And Fertilizers, Delhi which killed an advocate and
several others and severe disabilities and diseases to many , even after
generations the children where born out of deformities as a result of this
accident . The apex court in this matter refused to follow the principle of
strict liability and came with a new doctrine of absolute liability where the
aggrieved parties should be compensated without availability of any defence.
The apex court also took the view that it wont be suitable to use the principle
of strict liability in the case of Rylands V. Fletcher
, a two century old
doctrine in present modern era of industrialisation where there require much
stricter laws and principles to prevent such accidents and to protect ordinary
people.The Supreme Court came with the doctrine of absolute liability which is
wider than the rule of ' no faultliability'
and also solves issues related to workmen working under hazardous conditions and
their compensation. After the Oleum gas leak incident The Public Liability
insurance Act 1991 was enacted which aims to provide fund to compensate victims
of such accidents where it clearly talks abouthazardous substances and handling
Essentials Of Absolute Liability
- Hazardous Substance:
There should be the use of any Hazardous substance cause such an accident .
It can be poisonous gases, fumes, pollutants , water reservoir , explosives
The hazardous substance should escape so that it cause some damage to a
victim which give rise to an absolute liability. But Escape within the
premise can also be considered for absolute liability
- Non-natural use of land:
It can be clearly from the facts of the case . Storing water for domestic
purpose can be natural whereas storing water in reservoirs in large quantity
can be non natural. Similarly growing plants or trees in land can be natural
whereas growing plants which is poisonous in nature can be unnatural.
In order to held a defendant liable the plaintiff needs to show that some
hazardous substance had escaped and it caused some damages.
Absolute Liability Vs. Strict Liability
Can any defence be brought against absolute liability?
- Whereas principle of strict liability allows exceptions if the liability
has been accrued by an Act of God, act of third party etc., absolute
liability offers no exception to the industries involved in hazardous
- Under absolute liability, the extent of damages is exemplary and depends
on the magnitude and financial capability of the institute, however, under
strictliability, compensation is payable as per the nature and quantum of
- Under the doctrine of absolute liability, the element of escape is not
essential. In other words, rule of absolute liability shall be applicable to
those injured within the premise and person outside , which is not in the
case of strict liability
No defence can be brought against a case where strict liability is applied .
This makes it different from strict liability where defences like 'Act of God '
and 'Act of third person can be applied.
The doctrine of Absolute liability is a deviation from the principle that
someone commits an offence when he is at fault. The doctrine of absolute
liability can make anyone liable even if he is not at fault and can come with no
defence which we may think, as against the principle of natural justice where
everyone is allowed to defend their case. But I feel that the Indian Judiciary
had come up with the right decision by holding a new doctrine.
The main reasons could be such big corporate firms can come up with defence all
the time and escape through loopholes of law. In a highly developing economy
like India where the hazardous or inherently dangerous industries are necessary
to carry out development programme, it was important to modify the rules as per
the present requirements to protect ordinary people.
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