The Rule of absolute liability propounded by justice P.N.Bhagwati in the case of M.C.Mehta vs Union of India A.I.R. 1987 SC1086.
The rule of absolute liability took birth through one of the most intriguing sets of events for the Indian jurisprudence. The rule was propounded by the then Chief Justice of India P.N. Bhagwati. This rule has also lead to the revolutionizing of the entire aspect of environmental protection laws in India. Although this concept of absolute liability originally developed its roots in the 19th-century common law, however, this rule arrived in India quite late. After the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984 followed by the Oleum Gas Leak Case in 1986, the judiciary felt the need for enforcement of absolute liability into the Indian Context. In the case of M.C.Mehta vs Union of India, a landmark judgment was passed under which not only the scope of Article 21 was expanded to include the Right to human health and a healthy environment but also the rule of absolute liability was introduced in the Indian jurisprudence.
Brief facts of the case M.C. Mehta vs Union of India A.I.R. 1987 SC 1086:
M.C. Mehta vs Union of India is considered to be a landmark both in the field of Torts as well as criminal law. A privately owned and well-established company, Shriram Food and Fertilizer Industry was engaged in the mass production of Caustic chlorine and Oleum gas. M.C Mehta, a well-known socialist and an advocate filed a petition for the closure of the plant over the concerns of its location in a densely populated region of New Delhi.
All the reports of the committees that were appointed to record their observation like ‘Manmohan Singh Committee’, ‘Nilay Choudhary Committee’, and others indicated that if the plant had to operate, then it would have to follow the highest degree of safety protocols and regulations and the failure to do so could result in incalculable losses. During the period when the petition was filed, there was an escape of the toxic oleum gas from one of the plant units on December 4, 1985. The release of gas led to severe catastrophes.
The court held the company to be absolutely liable for the release of the ‘oleum gas’ and all the harm that followed. Also, as far as the calculation of compensation is concerned, the court decided that it will be parallel to the magnitude and capacity of the defendant.
Rule of Absolute Liability:
To fulfill the needs of a fast and ever-changing society the law of a land is required to grow as well. It is common in societies for situations to arise that haven’t occurred before and to deal with such new challenges there also arises the need for a law to evolve. New norms and principles have to be laid down as per the needs of the people and to adequately deal with problems that arise in a highly industrialized economy. Bhagwati. J. therefore, stated that a venture to evolve a new rule of liability needs to be undertaken to meet the requirements of our society. He stated that the doctrine of liability under the 19th-century common law that was being followed is not sufficient and that to deal with unusual situations that have arisen and which is also very much likely to arise again in the future, we have to develop our laws with regards to the use of hazardous or inherently dangerous substances that the industries work with.
The industries working with hazardous or inherently dangerous substances may pose a potential threat or harm to the health or safety of any person who is either employed in the industry or who lives nearby. Thus, such industries owe a non-delegable and absolute duty to the community and they need to ensure that no harm is done to anyone due to the nature of the activities which it undertakes. To ensure the same, the activities must be conducted with the highest standards of safety, and if any harm results on account of such activity then the enterprise will be absolutely liable to compensate for the harm caused.
Furthermore, the enterprise cannot take a defence saying that it had taken all reasonable care and that the harm had occurred without any negligence on the enterprises’ part. The rationale behind it is that a person who has been harmed on account of the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity that was being carried on by the enterprise would not be in a position to distinguish between the processes of operation involving the hazardous preparation of substance from any other related element that caused the harm. Thus, the enterprise 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.
Also, if an enterprise takes up a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity for private profit then it can be tolerated only on the condition that the enterprise indemnifies all those who suffer on account of carrying on of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity regardless of whether it is carried on carefully or not. Thus, P.N. Bhagwati .J. propounded the new “no-fault” liability standard, which is ‘absolute liability’.
It states 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, for example, 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 as in the tortuous principle of strict liability under the rule in Rylands vs. Fletcher”.
The progressive approach undertaken by the judiciary in the case of M.C. Mehta Vs Union of India is commendable. The viewpoint that the Indian Judiciary should not limit its judgments solely because the common law doesn’t fit the needs of today’s society is seen as significant. Laws must always be updated and they should go hand in hand with the progress of a society. The transition of the principle of absolute liability from the doctrine of strict liability depicts positive results in its applicability. This rule enshrines the concept that if the victim suffers a loss of property or life, then it gets compensated as soon as possible as no one must suffer due to the negligence of others.
This article is authored by Tanya Singh, First-Year, BA.LLB student at Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, GGSIPU
Also Read – Rule of Absolute Liability and Strict Liability.