An Insight Into the Principle of Absolute Liability With Reference to M.C Mehta v. Union of India

An Insight Into the Principle of Absolute Liability With Reference to M.C Mehta v. Union of India
Author: Priyakshi Kumra

3rd Year, 
School of Law, 
Christ (Deemed to be University).

ABSTRACT
Since change is the only constant around us, it is important for us to change with time. It is necessary that in a society there are new principles evolved to curb new problems for justice to prevail in the society. There are enterprises that have to undertake hazardous activities, to fulfil certain demands of the society. But at the same time, they have an innate responsibility to take reasonable care and caution in order to cause no harm to any individual in the society. The principle of strict liability was laid down in the case Rylands v. Fletcher due to sheer liability of the defendant. Taking a step forward, the principle of absolute liability was evolved by Justice Bhagwati in M. C. Mehta v. Union of India where the liability of an enterprise was highlighted. The purpose of this paper is to bring out the evolution of the principle of absolute liability and its various components. This principle has been used in many cases, majorly, Union carbide v. Union of India which also deals with the principle of absolute liability and certain other new provisions. There is a thin difference between strict and absolute liability which has been brought out in this paper.
Key Words: absolute liability, strict liability, reasonable, hazardous, enterprises

Certain activities are so hazardous or dangerous in its innate nature that they constitute constant threat to individuals and properties of others. The law as the highest authority has to make laws to control the danger caused by these activities or prohibit such activities altogether for the betterment of the individuals in the society. Since some of the activities are of social utility and are considered as an essential element in the society, the law can ask them to take utmost care or set up special provisions to avoid such dangers. An activity conducted with such care that it cannot be condemned as negligent and sufficiently within public tolerance to escape injunction may nevertheless entail liability for harm which it causes. Such liability is variously termed strict or absolute.[1]In the doctrine of strict liability the owners or undertakers have to pay compensation for any damages that has been caused to an individual due to the activity undertaken.

Strict liability has its origin in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher[2], where the defendant had a mill near Ainsworth in Lancashire wanted to improve its water-supply. The defendant decided to construct a reservoir by employing reputed engineers to complete the task. When the reservoir was filled, water flowed down the plaintiff’s neighbouring coal mine causing damage. There were independent contractors who were negligent and did not seal the shaft completely which led to the flooding of water on the plaintiff’s land. The judges stated that the defendant was no way liable as they had employed independent contractors who were competent for the job, therefore they couldn’t be held vicariously liable. The judgement laid down was by BLACKBURN, J.[3], in this case forms the basis of strict liability “The rule of law is that the person who, for his own purpose, brings on his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it in at his peril; and if he does so is prima facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape.”2

On the lines laid down in the judgement of Rylands v. Fletcher on strict liability there was a more stringent rule introduced by the Supreme Court in M. C. Mehta v. Union of India[4]. An enterprise with the name Shriram Foods and Fertiliser Plant, Delhi was situated amidst a population of 2,00,000 people. It manufactured items such as glycerine soap, and technical hard oil. The petitioner, M.C. Mehta, filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court to obtain an order for closure of the plant and its relocation to an area where it “would not be any real danger to the health and safety of the people.”

The Supreme Court after reviewing the case granted the plant to restart its function, on pending disposal of the petition. During the pendency of the petition, oleum gas leaked from the plant causing significa
nt detrimental health effects to the local population, pursuant to which compensation claims were filed.
In this case, when the court applied the rule of Rylands v. Fletchers it could be clearly concluded that the company was liable to pay compensation to the plaintiff as oleum gas was brought to the land of the owner and its escape caused damage. But, the court was ambiguous about the fact that the rules laid down in Rylands v. Fletchers did not fully meet the needs of a modern industrial society with new technology and skill.
As Justice Bhagwati[5]states “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 the country. As new situations arise the law has to be evolved in order to meet the challenge of such new situations. Law cannot afford to remain static. We have to evolve new principles and lay down new norms which would adequately deal with the new problems which arise in a highly industrialised economy. We cannot allow our judicial thinking to be constricted by reference to the law as it prevails in England or for the matter of that in any other foreign country. We no longer need the crutches of a foreign legal order.”

Therefore, the rule came regarding the liability of a corporation due to injurious consequences of hazardous activities conducted by it, the Court held that a corporation “owes an absolute and non-delegable duty to the community to ensure that no harm results to anyone on account of the hazardous or inherently dangerous nature of the activity which it has undertaken.” Extending the principle of strict liability in Rylands v. Fletcher, the Court, for the first time, enunciated the principle of absolute liability of corporations when they undertake hazardous and dangerous activity. Such activity, according to the Court, should be allowed only on the condition that the enterprise “indemnifies all those who suffer on account of the carrying on of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity regardless of whether it is carried on carefully or not.”

The rule of absolute liability[6]lays down rules that states that the enterprise must be held to be under an obligation to provide that the hazardous or inherently  dangerous activity in which it is engaged must be conducted with the highest standards of safety 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. Since the persons harmed on account of the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity carried on by the enterprise would not be in a position to isolate the process of operation from the hazardous preparation of substance or any other related element that caused the harm must be held strictly liable for causing such harm as a part of the social cost for carrying on the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity.

If the enterprise is permitted to carry on a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity for its profit, the law must presume that such permission is conditional on the enterprise absorbing the cost of any accident arising on account of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity as an appropriate item of its over-heads. Such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity for private profit can be tolerated only on condition that the enterprise engaged in such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity indemnifies all those who suffer on account of the carrying on of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity regardless of whether it is carried on carefully or not. This principle is also sustainable on the ground that the enterprise alone has the resource to discover and guard against hazards or dangers and to provide warning against potential hazards. We would therefore hold that where an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and harm results to anyone on account of an accident in the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity resulting, for example, in escape of toxic gas the enterprise is strictly and absolutely liable to compensate all those who are affected by the accident and such liability is not subject to any of the exceptions which operate vis-a-vis the tortious principle of strict liability under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher.

The measure of compensation awarded in Rylands v. Fletcher was ordinary or compensatory but in case of M. C. Mehta v. Union of India where the principle of absolute liability was laid down, compensation would be exemplary which was co-related to the magnitude and capacity of the enterprise because such compensation must have a deferent effect. The larger and more prosperous the enterprise, the greater must be the amount of compensation payable by it for the harm caused on account of an accident in the carrying on of the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity by the enterprise[7].

The rule in Rylands v. Fletchers did not cover cases of harm to persons within the premises for the rule requires escape of the thing which causes harm from the premises. The new rule makes no such distinctions between persons within the premises where the enterprise is carried on and persons outside the premises for escape. In absolute liability, the owner of the enterprise cannot seek any defense as to escape their liability by claiming that they took reasonable care or the fault lies in the hands of plaintiff. Since they are indulged in such hazardous or inherently dangerous industries.

Further, after the rule of absolute liability that was laid down by Justice Bhagwati, similar cases arose on the lines laid down in the preceding case such as in Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action v. Union of India[8]where many hazardous chemical industries negligently released highly toxic untreated waste water and sludge which had percolated deep into the soil rendering the soil unfit for cultivation and water unfit for irrigation, human or animal consumption resulting in untold misery to the villagers of the surrounding areas. In this case the court imposed absolute liability on enterprises carrying on hazardous and inherently dangerous activities. On the account of continuous, persistent and insolent violations of law, the enterprise was ordered to shut down immediately and required a payment of sum ₹50,000/- to the petitioner as the cost that he had incurred in the process of litigation for a period of six years.

The newly evolved principle of absolute liability helped to define the quantum of liability that lies in the hands of the enterprise and the measure of care that he is expected to take. In Klaus Mittelbachert v. East India Hotels Ltd[9]., a German co-pilot, who stayed in New Delhi in Hotel Oberoi Inter-Continental, a five-star hotel, was badly injured when he dived in the hotel swimming pool due to the defective design of the swimming pool and insufficient amount of water in it. The injuries resulted in his paralysis and ultimate death after 13 years of the accident. It was held that the five-star hotel owed the highest degree of care towards its guest in accordance to the fancy prices that they charged. Thus, the principle of absolute liability led to an obligation for the respondent to pay a compensation of 50 lacs to the plaintiff in leu of the damages caused.

Emphasizing towards the history of civil wrong, there arises a landmark judgement that was upheld in Supreme court differentiating between the principle off strict liability and absolute liability. In the case of Union Carbide Corporation v. Union of India[10], popularly known as the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Case. On the night of December 2/3, 1984, a mass disaster the worst in the recent times, was caused by the leakage of Methyl Isocyanate(MIC) and other toxic gases from a plant set up by the Union Carbide India Ltd.(UCIL) for the manufacture of pesticides, etc. in Bhopal. It is a subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation(UCC), a multinational company, registered in U.S.A. The disa
ster resulted in the death of at least 3,000 serious injuries to other (estimated 6 lacs). Permanent injuries have been caused to people affecting their eyes, respiratory system, and causing complications including damage to foetuses of pregnant women.

A large number of cases have been filed on the behalf of the victims belonging to the lower strata of the society. In pursuance of the power conferred on the government under Section 3, the Union of India filed a suit on behalf of all the claimants, against the UCC in United States District Court of New York. The UCC, pleaded for the dismissal of the suit on the grounds of forum non conveniens, i.e., the suit can be more conveniently tried in India. As the case was tried in the District Court of Bhopal, M.W. Deo ordered that the UCC to pay an interim relief of ₹350 crore to gas victims. On the other hand, the UCC appealed to the High Court of Madhya Pradesh, Mr. Justice S. K. Seth reduced the quantum of “interim compensation” payable from ₹350 to ₹250 crores. Furthermore, both the parties appealed to the Supreme Court in order to seek justice. The Supreme Court laid down the rule of ‘Absolute Liability’ in reference to the rule of strict liability laid down in Rylands vs. Fletcher. The UCC therefore, could not escape the liability on the ground of sabotage, which it was trying to plead as a defense, which is permitted under the rule in Ryland vs. Fletcher. The principle laid down by the Supreme Court in M.C. Mehta is as follows:

Where an enterprise is engaged in hazardous or inherently dangerous activity harm results to anyone on account of an accident in the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity resulting, for example, in the escape of toxic gas, the enterprise is strictly and absolutely liable to compensate all those who are affected by the accident and such liability is not subject to any of the exceptions which operate    vis-à-vis the tortious principle of strict liability under the rule is Ryland vs. Fletcher.

After long drawn litigation for 4 years the settlement order came on February 14 and 15, 1989 directing a sum of 470 million U.S. dollars with the condition that all civil and criminal cases against Union Carbide and all its employees would be upheld. But at the same time, it was observed that the criminal proceedings could not be quashed and could not be settled with the amount that was compounded against the offence. The court held that monetary compensation could not be granted against all the injuries that were suffered by the plaintiffs and their families. It was also concluded that criminal offences cannot be upheld by providing a compensation. It was mentioned that not every case can be decided on the basis of the principle laid down in M. C. Mehta v Union of India. Each case had its own circumstantial conditions and no principle can be directly applied to a case.

So, torts is an evolving subject matter is bound to additions that will happen over the passage of time and the development in the society. The principle propounded in the above cases have opened a new dimension for justice to prevail in the society and defining the liability that lies in the hands of the enterprises. Moreover, with the principle of strict liability, the owner of the enterprises had a number of defences that they could use in order to escape their liability. But with the introduction of the principle of absolute liability, there is a clear definition of the liability that is of absolute nature and that no defence mechanisms can be used in order to shift the burden of liability. The only factor, that needs to be looked upon is that not every case can be dealt with the exactly same principle as laid down in any case. Since each case has a different set of facts, though the principle can be applied but it can be molded according to the conditions of the case. However, with the judgement given under the Bhopal Gas Leak Case, in practical scenario, still there are families who have not been compensated for the damages that have been caused to their friends and family. It is mandatory that all the aggrieved persons are actually compensated, only then can a judgement really do good to the society. The broad principle laid down in certain cases need to have more value, so as to suit the conditions of the given case. The tort law is majorly based on precedents, therefore it is essential for each and every case to have a clarity and legal backing, in order to have a persuasive value.   


[1] Harvard Law Review, Absolute Liability for Dangerous Things.  61, JSTOR, pp. 515–523 (1948).
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[2] (1868) L.R. 3 H.L. 330.

[3] The rule was formulated by Blackburn, J. in Exchequer Chamber in Fletcher v. Rylands, (1866) L.R. 1 Ex.265 and the same was approved by the House of Lords in Rylands v.  Fletchers, (1868) L.R. 3 H.L.330.

[4] A.I.R. 1987 S.C. 1086.

[5]M. C. Mehta v. Union of India, A.I.R. 1987 S.C. 1089.

[6] A.I.R. 1987 S.C. 1086: ACJ 386: This case was decided by a bench consisting of 7 judges on a reference made by a bench of three judges.  That Bench had earlier decided whether the working of the Shriram Food and Fertilizer Industries should be re-started, and if so, with what conditions. See A.I.R. 1987 S.C. 965 and 982.

[7] Dr. R.K. Bangia, Law of Torts 1. 336 (23rd ed, Allahabad Law Agency,2013).

[8] A.I.R. 1996 S.C. 1446.


[9] A.I.R 1997 Delhi 201.

[10] A.I.R. 1990 S.C. 273.

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