The rapid growth of industries, is both disastrous and fortunate for the people and economy respectively at the same time. With technological advancements taking place for the required globalization of the country, hazardous industrial work was necessity for the successful growth of the country. The local residents near those hazardous industries have more risk to witness chemical accidents. Since the 1984 Bhopal Gas tragedy, India has seen more than 10 significant chemical industrial accidents that have resulted in the loss of more than 100 lives. On 7th May,2020 12 people lost their lives due to the leakage of styrene, a hazardous and toxic chemical at LG Polymers Chemical Plant in RR Venkatapuram Village, Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. The National Green Tribunal(NGT) order dated 8th May said: “Leakage of the hazardous gas at such a scale adversely affecting public health and environment, clearly attracts the principle of ‘Strict Liability’ against the enterprise engaged in hazardous or inherently dangerous activity.” Following paragraphs will provide brief on Absolute and Strict Liability.
STRICT AND ABSOLUTE LIABILITY
The principle of absolute and strict liability was formulated by the Supreme court in a crucial judgement in MC Mehta vs Union of India in 1986, when the court was dealing with the leak of oleum gas at the Shriram Foods and Fertilizers Industries plant, Delhi in India.
A. Rule of Strict Liability
The rule of Strict Liability was evolved from the case of Ryland v. Fletcher in the year 1868. This principle clearly states that a person who indulges in non-natural use of land keeps hazardous substances in his premises, is liable for the fault if that substance escapes in any manner and causes damages. While the concept of strict liability was an essential rule laid down by the court, rather the Indian courts chose to look at it differently. The liability under this rule is strict and not having willful knowledge or default or neglect is by no means a defense. However, there are few exceptions available against the principle of strict liability such as
- the escape being an act of God;
- default on the part of person injured;
- act of third party;
- if the hazardous activity was being carried out with consent of the person injured; or
- Common benefit of plaintiff or defendant (Volentia Non Fit Injuria)
This principle stands true if there was no negligence on the side of the defendant and the burden of the proof always lies on the defendant to prove how he is not liable.The application of strict liability rule is found in both criminal and civil law. According to Legal Information Institute of Cornell law school, “In both tort and criminal law, strict liability exists when a defendant is liable for committing an action, regardless of what hisher intent or mental state was when committing the action.”
Additionally, the rule was laid down in the 19th century which could certainly not encompass the obligation that an enterprise would have in the current era. Hence, the court ruled that there existed no need for the court to blindly follow the rules set down by a foreign court.
B. Rule of Absolute Liability
The limitation of the principle of strict liability in the contemporary industrialized world has been categorically highlighted by the supreme court more than once. This principle of strict liability was overturned by the Supreme court in the celebrate case of M.C Mehta v. Union of India whereby the court evolved the concept of no fault liability, formally known as ‘Absolute Liability’. Under this principle, “an enterprise, which is engaged in hazardous or inherently dangerous industry which poses a potential threat to the health and safety of the person working within 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 the account of the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity which it has been undertaken by the enterprise.
The principle of absolute liability offers no exception to the industries involved in the hazardous activity and they are absolutely liable for the damage so caused, despite observance of the due diligence. Thereafter the principle has been reaffirmed in the case of Charan Lal Sahu v. Union of India(AIR 1990 SC 1480), it was highlighted that the rule is absolute and non-delegable and the enterprises cannot escape liability by showing that it has taken reasonable care or there was zero negligence on its parts.
To sum up, the principle of absolute liability was propounded by the Supreme court to ensure that the profit- oriented industrial enterprises carrying on inherently hazardous activities do not escape liability in terms of the exceptions/defenses available under the rule of strict liability.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ABSOLUTE & STRICT LIABILITY
The difference between Strict and Absolute liability rules was laid down by Supreme Court in the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, where the court explains as:
Firstly, in Absolute Liability only those enterprises shall be held liable which are involved in hazardous or inherently dangerous nature of activity, this implies that other industries not falling in the above ambit shall be covered under the principle of Strict liability.
Secondly, the element of escape of a dangerous thing one`s land is not essential under absolute liability; it means even if any hazardous substance leaks from the premises of the industry, then the enterprise may be held absolutely liable or injury to workers within the premises and the person outside the premise.
Thirdly, the rule of absolute liability does not have any exception, unlike Strict liability. Also Union of India V. Prabhakaran Vijay Kumar the view of constitutional bench was that the rule of MC Mehta is not subject to any type of exception.
Apart from the non-availability of the exception under the principle of absolute liability, the rule of absolute liability is different when it comes to the extent of damages to be paid. Under strict liability, compensation is payable as per the nature and quantum of damages caused but in cases of absolute liability, damages to be paid are exemplary in nature, and depend upon the magnitude and the financial position of the company.Inter alia, Absolute liability can be applied by the courts even in those areas where a few deaths are reported and there is no mass destruction of property, population and the environment.
Public Liability Insurance Act,1991
An act that provide for public liability insurance for the purpose of providing instant relief to the persons affected by the accidents occurring while handling any hazardous substance and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto. The compensation payable under this act is also irrespective of the company`s neglect. The victims who are exposed to hazardous substance used by the industry my file a claim with the collector within 5 year of the accident.
The principle of strict liability under order of National Green Tribunal in Vizag gas leak opens a convenient window for the company. LG polymers can escape from liability on showing that there was zero negligence on their part. Regardless of the final decision of NGT in this test case, the larger concern is the issue of the safety of people including the worker and the environment. The incident of vizag gas leak necessitates progressive regulatory tools. Prior assessment of social and environmental impact of industrial activities is useful and there is need for continuous monitoring of any such industry which may lead to fatal accident on its escape.
Author: Akriti Mishra,
Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, Surat, 2nd Year Law student