[i] The Principle of Absolute Liability is considered to be an extension of
strict liability. Therefore, it becomes essential to have a clear understanding
of strict liability first. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in Great
Britain starting in the year 1760 there was an increase in demand for unskilled
With time the working conditions of the shareholders kept on degrading due to
negligence by the factory owners. Because of such negligence, many hazardous
accidents occurred and caused damages to various stakeholders. There was no law
to protect the rights of the stakeholders.
In this situation the rule of strict liability evolved through the case of
Rylands vs Fletchers
in 1868, the rule simply stated that any person keeping
any hazardous substance on his premises would be held liable if such substance
escapes and causes harm to any other person and it would be immaterial whether
due care and caution was taken by the defendant. However strict liability has
various exceptions like Acts of God, Plaintiff's own fault, acts of a third
party, Act done by a statutory authority.
Principle Of Absolute Liability
The Principle of Absolute liability makes the individual absolutely liable for
damage caused by the escape of a hazardous substance without any exceptions
irrespective of the individual's intent in causing such damage or harm. In
simple terms, Absolute liability is also known as strict liability minus its
Origin Of The Principle Of Absolute Liability In India
Until the 1980s the principle of Strict Liability was a concrete law in Indian
Jurisprudence and was applied in cases with no further analysis. However, the
changing dynamics and increased industrial development happening in India led to
several MNCs being established in India it was not reasonable to apply a law
that was formed dating back to the industrial revolution.
The defenses available in the principle of strict liability were often misused
by the defendants to escape from liability, because of these reasons there was a
need for a new law or an extension to the Rylands vs Fletchers rule which caters
to the changing dynamics of the country back then. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy case
of 1984 and the Oleum gas Leak case of 1986 these two major debacles that
compelled the Supreme Court of India to evolve a new law in the case of M.C.
Mehta vs Union of India. The M.C Mehta rule is more stringent compared to the
Rylands vs Fletchers rule and also covers up various discrepancies in the strict
M.C. Mehta Vs Union Of India (Oleum Gas Leak Case)
In this case Mr. M.C Mehta, a social activist filed a writ petition in the
Supreme Court of India for the closure of Shriram Industries and its various
plants for manufacturing hazardous substances like Sulphuric acid and Caustic
Chlorine. The same industry was responsible for the leakage of Oleum gas that
led to the death of one person and injured several others.
The then-Chief Justice P. N. Bhagwati held that despite there being an
established principle in Rylands vs Fletchers case there is a need for a new
rule, the law should not be hindered because of established principles and the
law should continue to expand to reflect and stay up with society's dynamic,
ever-changing economic, technological and social position. The absolute
liability rule held in the M.C. Mehta case had four essentials.
The first prerequisite is the industry's nature, which is hazardous. The second
rule unlike in Strict liability is that it is not important to escape if a
person is injured either outside or inside the premises. The lack of any
exceptions as defined by strict responsibility is the third requirement, and the
size and scope of the industry will determine the fourth requirement-the number
of damages to be paid. This rule applies to both natural and non-natural use of
land while strict liability applies to only non-natural use of land. The apex
court upheld the M.C. Mehta Rule in Charan Lal Singh vs Union of India
Vizag Gas Leak Case
On May 7, 2020, styrene gas leaked from a chemical plant owned by L.G Polymers
India Pvt. Ltd. situated in Gopalapatnam, Vizag the incident took the lives of
11 people and caused sickness to over 1000 people, the facts of the case closely
resonate with the Bhopal Gas Tragedy case of 1984 except the intensity of the
accident after the wide publication of the incident the National Green Tribunal
took Suo moto cognizance of the matter and formed a committee headed by retired
Andhra Pradesh High Court Judge to inspect the matter, determine its various
environmental and human consequences and find the appropriate course of action.
The NGT further directed LG Polymers to deposit 50 crores with the collector
after analyzing the financial position of the company and the extent of the
damage. Considering its proximity of facts with the Bhopal Gas Tragedy case
except that LG Polymers unlike Union Carbide Corporation did not know in advance
that the gas could leak several reports claimed the application of the principle
of absolute liability however the National Green Tribunal has applied the
principle of strict liability in the present case. This move by the NGT has been
criticized by several environmentalists and law experts providing that this
gives LG Polymers ample amount of exceptions to escape from liability.
Need For Absolute Liability
- The Rylands vs Fletchers rule is one hundred and fifty years old
and does not recognize the social and technological developments that have
occurred in the country and hence does not apply to the current times.
- There are different and varied uses of land between England and India
this makes an English-made law inapplicable to a country like India. For
example, storing water in large quantities is normal in India whereas it
might be considered a non-natural use of land in England.
- The principle fixes social responsibility to the industries using
hazardous and dangerous substances for the risk and damages occurred to the
citizens of the country.
Relevance Of Absolute Liability In India
With changing times, we can surely deduce that there is surely a need for a
stringent law to hold industries accountable for the damage caused by them. But
confusion arises when there is an overlapping between Absolute Liability, Strict
liability, and principles of negligence. Which often causes courts of law and
tribunals to be puzzled when it comes to dealing with actual cases.
The question before us is why not handle these cases by applying the principle
of negligence and analyzing whether reasonable care was taken by the defendant
and determining the liability according to it, these questions pose serious
doubts regarding the relevance of absolute liability.
We can see that the MC Mehta "Absolute Liability
" rule, which is praised
by attorneys and environmentalists as a decision that changes the game and holds
industries accountable for the damages caused by hazardous substances, but we
must also see the other side of the coin as well understanding the current
scenario it is undisputable that manufacturing any product is impossible without
using hazardous substances.
It would not be wrong to infer that the M.C. Mehta rule could be influenced by
the situation back then with the frustration of justice not being served to the
victims of two major accidents. We should also notice that the M.C. Mehta rule
was formed in the year 1986 that is before 1991 when the Indian Economy opened
up over the past 36 years there have been drastic changes in the condition of
the Economy and government policies.
After understanding our country's economic position and the nature of our recent
policies there is a need for less stringent industry-friendly laws which
balances the rights of the stakeholders, and the protection of the environment
and provide reasonable defenses to the defendant in case of damage.
Chief Justice P. N. Bhagwati in the M.C. Mehta case only observed:
"Law has to grow in order to satisfy the needs of the fast-changing society and
keep abreast with the economic developments, taking place in this country. As
the new situation arises the law has to be evolved in order to meet the
challenge of such new situations."
Thus, as the principle of absolute liability evolved in the M.C. Mehta case
to meet the challenges which were present back then similarly it is of paramount
importance for the judiciary to understand there is a need for a new less
stringent version of the M.C. Mehta rule which works with the current situation
and takes a balanced approach.
- P Sanjana Parisaboina, A Critical Analysis of Absolute Liability and Its
Role in Environment Law, Hein Online, 4 INT'l J.L. MGMT. & HUMAN. 405
- Charvi Devprakash, Absolute Liability: The Dynamics of Changing
'Business-Stakeholder' Relations, Hein Online, 3 INT'l J.L. MGMT. & HUMAN.
447 (2020) 3Issue4IntlJLMgmtHuman447.pdf
- Anamika Tyagi, Reiterating the Principle of Absolute Liability in Light
of Oleum Gas Leakage Case, SSRN,9 November 2020" SSRN-id3697451.pdf
- Soumya Shukla, The Enigma of Using Absolute Liability in The Indian
Perspective, Legal Service India E-Journal,
- Ruhi Kanakia, The Evolution of Absolute Liability in India, iPleaders,
27 November 2020 https://blog.ipleaders.in/evolution-of-absolute-liability-in-india/
- Preeti Sivaraman, Doctrine of absolute liability: Vizag gas leak angle,
- M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, 1987 (1) SCC 395