Absolute Liability

Mridul BansalParamjeet Singh Bhamra from  Gitarattan International Business School.

It is was the Oleum Gas Leak Case[1], which made the judiciary realize the urge of strict and absolute implementation of liability into the Indian Law. Till now, what was given consideration was the doctrine prevailing in Common Law but it gained modification in India by the doctrine of absolute liability. The principles derived from the case of Rylands V. Fletcher[2] led to the principle of absolute liability that obstructed the defendants in the case of M.C Mehta V. Union Of India[3] from denying to pay compensation. Therefore, in the Indian Context absolute liability has become both tortious and criminal liability and states that the engagement of any enterprise in any activity which is hazardous or inherently dangerous and which results in any injury to any person shall account that enterprise liable for carrying on of such activity.
The doctrine of absolute liability is considered as an instrument to halt mass demolition or prevention of harm to life of masses. With the need to move parallelly with time and growth, the courts began to bring the doctrine into play even where the life of masses were not concerned but only bring about wellbeing of an individual. In the case of Klaus Mittelbachert V. East India Hotels Limited[4], a German co-pilot suffered serious injuries after he dived into the swimming pool of a five star restaurant. With the conduct of investigation, it was found that the design of the swimming pool was defective and there was insufficient water. After 13 years of the incident, the co-pilot died due to paralyses. The Court stated that the five star hotels are expensive and they have to take a high degree of care towards their customers and therefore, the hotel was held liable to pay a compensation of Rs. 50,00,000.

Bhopal Gas Tragedy[5]
This severe industrial disaster occurred between 2-3 December, 1984 in the city of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. The leakage of Methyl Isocyanate Gas from the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) plant which manufactured pesticides was the reason behind the happening of such tragedy. The control and prevention equipment and the safety system were not working and some of the working system were in a poor condition which lead to the death of 4,000 people and 1.5 lakh people being injured.
The out of court settlement that took place between the Government of India and the UCIL for full and final settlement of $740 million was largely criticized and the Supreme Court upheld the settlement order except the clause of suspending criminal proceedings.
Thus, the doctrine of absolute liability operates even if the duty of care was taken by the company since it makes the owner absolutely liable for the tragedy whatever may be the reason for the occurrence. Thus, it creates a deterrence in the minds of the owners to take full proof measures and to predict the worst case scenario.

Uphaar Cinema Case[6]:
On 13th June, 1997, a fire broke out at the Uphaar Cinema located in South Delhi, during the screening of the movie Border due to fault in wire connections and lead to the death of 59 people and injured 100.  The two transformers installed caught fire and they were repeatedly demanding repairs which resulted in sparking and then a massive fire.
It was held that even if there was no negligence, there was statutory violation by not maintaining the safety standards and such a violation is sufficient to empower the court to make the respondents liable.

Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991[7]
The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991 came into force as a measure to protect the workers in a factory handling hazardous substances from delayed relief of compensation. It also binds the owners to take insurance for the workers handling such substances so that in case of an unforeseen accident the workers are secure.
This act’s main object was to give or provide necessary damages or compensation to people other than the people who work there or under their employment, and who got affected by accident or series of accidents which occur while working with chemical or dangerous hazardous substances and for all the matters connected. This act was brought to ensure compensation to the people effected and that the companies won’t be able to escape the liability through stating their inability to pay due to any reason such as bankruptcy or lack of sufficient assets or funds. This act ensures that the ongoing operation is secured and in case of any accident, the damages can be paid without any major problem.

[1] M.C. Mehta vs Union of India and Ors. 1987 SCR (1) 819, AIR 1987 965
[2] Rylands v Fletcher [1868] UKHL 1  (1868) LR 3 HL 330
[3] Supra Note 1
[4] Klaus Mittelbachert vs East India Hotels Ltd. on 3 January, (1997) 1999 ACJ 287, 1997 IIAD Delhi 23, AIR 1997 Delhi 201, 65 (1997) DLT 428, 1997 (40) DRJ 147
[5] Shikha Goyal, “Bhopal Gas Tragedy: All you need to know” Retrieved from https://www.jagranjosh.com/general-knowledge/bhopal-gas-tragedy-1575289409-1 on 21/01/20
[6] Bhawna, “Uphaar Cinema Case Study” Retrieved from http://www.legalserviceindia.com/legal/article-752-uphaar-cinema-case-study.html on 21/01/20
[7] Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991 (6 of 1991)