Strict Liability and Absolute Liability: Concept and Laws

This article on ‘Strict Liability and Absolute Liability: Concept and Laws‘ was written by an intern at Legal Upanishad.

Introduction

The concept of liability dates back more than 200 years. There are many incidents that occur in our day-to-day life which can cause us great inconvenience and damage to our properties and sometimes it can also result in severe injury to our body. The concept of liability in law basically deals with the person responsible for these incidents. This article will take a look at what is strict liability, the essentials and exceptions of strict liability, absolute liability, and a few cases.

Strict Liability

The principle of Strict Liability was first coined in the year 1868 in the case of Rylands v Fletcher. The court held that if any person has possession of any hazardous or dangerous substance on his property, the person shall be held responsible or liable for any damages which occur to the general public during the usage of the hazardous substance.

In the above-given case, Fletcher had a mill on land owned by him, he also built a reservoir on the same land to power the mill. Now, due to an accident, the water in the reservoir gushed into some coal mines nearby which were owned by Ryland. Subsequently, Ryland sued Fletcher for the damages caused to him by Fletcher’s reservoir.

It can be said from the above example that a person can be answerable for the damages done to others from the hazardous substances present on his property even when he was not negligent. However, there are some essential conditions to claiming strict liability.

Essentials of Strict Liability

  1. Dangerous substance – The most important condition to claim strict liability is a dangerous substance. There must be some substance that can cause damage or injury like explosives or arms.
  2. Escape – There should also be an escape of the dangerous substance and it should be out of the defendant’s reach after it has escaped. For example, if person “F” has poisonous gas on his premises and that gas leaks and a person who is walking near his house breathes it and dies, F will be held liable for his death. 
  3. Non-natural use – There must also be non-natural use of the land which means any kind of special use of the property which would not be used that way by a normal person.

All these conditions are essential to claim damages under strict liability.

The exception to the Rule of Strict Liability

While there are essential, there are also exceptions to claim damages under strict liability.

  1. Plaintiff’s Fault – If the plaintiff went out of the way and got injured as a result of his actions, the defendant cannot be held liable.
  2. Act of God – Act of God is an event or a happening which is beyond the control of humans, like floods and earthquakes. These events cannot be prevented even if the plaintiff is careful about the dangerous substance.
  3. Consent of the Plaintiff – This exception follows the principle of volenti non fit injuria. A person cannot claim damages from an incident to which he has agreed or consented.

Absolute liability

Absolute liability in simple terms means all the conditions and essentials required in strict liability except any exceptions listed in it. This rule evolved in India after the MC Mehta v Union of India case which is a landmark judgment in the concept of absolute liability. 

In this case, some gas from industry in Delhi leaked into a particular area. Due to this gas leak, many people were affected. The Supreme Court then introduced the concept of absolute liability with reference to strict liability but without considering the exceptions of strict liability.

According to the concept, if any person is engaged in an activity that is inherently dangerous, and it results in harm to any other person due to any accident which occurred during carrying out the such inherently dangerous and hazardous activity, then the person who is carrying these activities will be held responsible for the accident. 

Bhopal Gas Tragedy

This is probably the most well-known incident known throughout India. In December 1984, a gas called methyl isocyanate leaked from the plants of Union Carbide Industries which is a pesticide manufacturing company based in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. This brutal incident claimed the lives of 4000 innocent people and further affected 1.5 lakh people severely.

In February 1985, The Government of India filed a case against the company and claimed an amount of $3.3 billion for the loss of lives and damages. The questions raised in this case were whether it was the liability of the company and if yes was it a case of absolute liability.

There was an out-of-court settlement in this case where the company paid $740 million and the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the settlement, which was highly criticized. But the court did hold that even if the company took all the precautionary measures, they were still responsible for the accident and if not for the settlement, the company would be held responsible under the absolute liability provision.

Uphaar Cinema Case

This was another case where a fire broke out in Uphaar Cinema in Delhi during the screening of the recently released ‘Border’ in 1997. The source of the fire was later discovered to be the faulty wiring in a transformer in the basement of the theater. The transformer required repairs but it wasn’t repaired. This incident left 59 people dead and many more injured.

The case ‘The Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy’ claimed compensation from Ansal Theatre and Club hotels Ltd., owners of the theater. The Delhi High Court found the owners, Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), Delhi Vidyut Board (Electricity Board) (DVB), and the licensing authority ‘guilty of negligence,’ and awarded Rs 25 crore compensation to the victims of this incident

Conclusion

Strict and Absolute liability is the responsibility of a person to pay compensation to any person who has suffered in any way, due to any dangerous substances possessed by the accused on his property. This concept has lasted for over 2 centuries and there have been multiple cases where the case was decided solely upon these principles. 

References

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