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A View On Principle Of Absolute Liability

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 aspects.

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 any defence.

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 it.

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 etc.
  • Escape:
    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.
  • Mischief:
    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

  • 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 activities.
  • 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 damages caused.
  • 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

Can any defence be brought against absolute 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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