THE EVOLUTION OF ABSOLUTE LIABILITY

ORIGIN

Absolute Liability holds the individual absolutely liable for acts produced by the escape of a harmful object in the non-natural usage of land. The law of Strict Liability was seen to be solid and concrete until the 1980s in India, when the worst catastrophe of the Bhopal Gas Leak happened, and the issue of Strict Liability exceptions came to the forefront. Following the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and the Oleum Gas Leak, the Indian Judiciary determined that it was critical to establish a principle to address such uncommon events, in which the defendant should have no exception in assuming responsibility for the conduct that inflicted such large-scale losses. As a result, in the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, the Indian Judiciary, led by Justice Bhagwati, ultimately adopted the idea of Absolute Liability as applicable in cases like the one in question.

ESSENTIALS OF ABSOLUTE LIABILITY

The foundations of Absolute Liability are identical to those of Strict Liability in that they both involve the presence of a hazardous object, the escape of such hazardous objects, and the damage caused by the escape of such dangerous things. The need of ‘Non-natural use of land,’ as required by Strict Liability, is not a requirement to the rule of Absolute Liability.

The existence of a hazardous or inherently harmful material on the land is the primary differentiating feature in the essentials of Absolute Liability. This implies that if the defendant has a dangerous material on his property, regardless of its purpose, he is absolutely liable if the substance escapes his facilities. The liability lies not in the use of an object, but in its nature.

Hazardous, as defined in Section 2 of the Public Liability Insurance Act 1991, is ‘any material or preparation that is designated as a hazardous substance under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 (29 of 1986), and in excess of such quantity as the Central Government may specify by notification’. This is the critical differentiating feature that warrants the use of Absolute Liability.

OLEUM GAS LEAK CASE

Despite the fact that a liability concept was established in Rylands v. Fletcher, Chief Justice Bhagwati suggested that another principle might be used in this case. The court held that the precedent case in 1866 provided that “a person who, for his own purposes, being on his land and collects and keeps anything likely to do mischief if it escapes must keep it at his peril and, if he fails to do so, is prima facie liable for the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape.” However, the court noted that this regulation was enacted at a period when science and technology had not yet advanced to the degree that they had attained, and that legislation should not be used to obstruct owing to age-old established customs.

The court further held that “we are of the view that an enterprise which is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry which poses a potential threat to the health and safety of the persons working in the factory and residing in the surrounding areas owes an absolute and non-delegable duty to the community to ensure that no harm results to anyone on account of hazardous or inherently dangerous nature of the activity which it has undertaken and if any harm results on account of such activity, the enterprise must be absolutely liable to compensate for such harm and it should be no answer to the enterprise to say that it had taken all reasonable care and that the harm occurred without any negligence on its part.”

In addition, it was explicitly stated that unlike Strict Liability, the principle of Absolute Liability was not subject to any exceptions. The rationale was given that the companies engaging in dangerous and fundamentally hazardous activities owe a duty to the society as a whole, to compensate the individuals who suffer as a result of the industry, and that, only those companies have the ability and resources to devise and implement protections against such hazards and threats.

Further, the compensation should be proportional to the harm caused.

INDIAN COUNCIL FOR ENVIRO-LEGAL ACTION V. UNION OF INDIA [1996]

This was a landmark case that helps understand the establishment of Absolute Liability.

FACTS

A PIL filed under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution expressed the petitioners’ displeasure with the existence of companies which were creating widespread environmental pollution and jeopardizing the lives of the villagers who lived nearby. Because they were unable to live in a healthy atmosphere, it infringed their right to life and liberty under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

JUDGEMENT

The Supreme Court took immediate action, ordering the Central Government and the Pollution Control Board to impose harsh sanctions against the aforementioned enterprises. The court supported the Doctrine of Absolute Liability in this case, holding that the degraded environment must be restored to a pollution-free environment suited to healthy living through the use of anti-pollution scientific appliances. The costs spent during this procedure must be borne by the industries, even if their properties must be attached for this reason. The industries were held completely responsible for paying monetary damages for environmental rehabilitation.

CONCLUSION

The scope of the new rule of absolute liability is very wide in comparison to the principle of strict liability. The absence of any exceptions, inclusion of personal injuries in addition to public negligence, covering both occupiers and non-occupiers of land, etc. are among the elements which widen the scope of the principle.

Aishwarya Says:

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