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This article was written by Savyasachi Rawat, a student of Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University.
Strict liability and absolute liability are some of the most fundamental concepts in the law of torts, and comprehension of their differences is critical for any law student. In this article, the sphere of tortious liability insofar as it relates to strict and absolute liability will be analysed, through the landmark cases of Rylands v. Fletcher and M.C. Mehta v. Union of India.
The concept of liability in torts is based on the fundamental principle that it is wrongful to cause harm to other persons, even if specific protections are absent. In law, a person is said to be legally liable when s/he is financially and legally responsible for something – an outcome that has transpired due to the person’s action or omission. This cause-effect relationship is crucial for establishing liability, for without a cause or source for the wrong, responsibility in general cannot be affixed – the element of ‘fault’ is required to impute harm and claim remedy.
In the curious case of strict liability, the aforementioned concept of ‘fault’ is absent, along with intention and motive. This is because there are many activities which are so dangerous that they constitute risks to persons and property, and responsibility must be borne by some person in case of any harm. The law allows the potentially harmful activities to be carried on for the sake of social utility, but only in accordance with safety measures and the doctrine of strict liability – called so because the liability arises even without any negligence on the part of the defendant.
The Rule in Rylands v. Fletcher :
The rule in this case rests on the idea of foreseeability of damage; the person who is the source of damage is penalized for failing to avert the reasonably foreseeable damage.
Facts: Rylands and Fletcher were neighbours. Fletcher owned a mill, for the energy purposes of which he hired independent contractors and engineers to construct a water reservoir on his land. It so happened that there were old unused shafts under the site of the reservoir which the engineers failed to notice and block. Due to the negligence of the contractors, when water filled Fletcher’s reservoir, the water entered Rylands’ coal mine and caused huge loss, for that is where the shafts led. Subsequently, Ryland filed a suit against Fletcher. The defendant claimed that it was the fault of the contractors’, and the cause of damage was unknown to him.
Issues: The issue was very concise – Can the defendant be held liable, even if it was the act of someone else due to which an entity on his land escaped? It was notable because there was no negligence or intention on part of the defendant.
Judgment: The House of Lords rejected the plea of the defendant and held him liable for all the damages to Rylands’ mine. According to the rule set by this case, if a person brings on his land and keeps there any dangerous thing, a thing which is likely to do mischief if it escapes, he will be prima facie answerable to the damage caused by its escape even though he had not been negligent in keeping it there. Despite there being no fault or negligence on the part of the defendant, he was held liable because he kept some dangerous thing on his land and the said dangerous thing has escaped from his land and caused damage.
Essentials of Strict Liability
Certain qualifications were given to decide whether a liability is strict liability or not. Only after these essential qualifications are satisfied, can a liability can be termed as strict liability. These essentials, which are elucidated upon further on, are:
- Some dangerous thing must have been brought by a person on his land.
- The thing thus brought or kept by a person on his land must escape.
- It must be non-natural use of land.
- Dangerous Thing
This simply means that the defendant will be liable when the thing that escaped from his premises was a dangerous thing. The word ‘dangerous’ here implies that it is likely to do any sort of mischief if it escapes from the land. The collected water in Fletcher’s reservoir was the dangerous thing in the above mentioned case.
It is also essential that the thing causing harm must escape from the premises of the defendant, and it should not be within the reach of the defendant once it escapes.
- Non-Natural Use Of Land
For the use to be non-natural, it must be some special use that brings with it increased danger to others. It must not be the ordinary use of land or use as is proper for the general benefit of community.
There are certain exceptions to this rule, which are:
- Default of the Claimant
If the damage is caused solely by the act or default of the claimant himself, there is no remedy for him.
- Consent of the claimant
Where the claimant has expressly or implicitly consented to the presence of the source of danger and there has been no negligence on the part of the defendant, the defendant is not liable.
- Act of God
An event which directly and exclusively results from natural causes that could not have been prevented by the exercise of foresight or by the exercise of caution may be called an Act of God. Say, if the escape was unforeseen and without any human intervention, caused by some super natural force, then the defendant will not be liable.
- Statutory Authority
An act done under the authority of a statute exempts the defendant from tortious liability. However, the defence cannot be pleaded if the if there is any kind of negligence on the part of the defendant.
- Act of Third Party
The rule of strict liability doesn’t apply when the damages are caused due to the act of a stranger, i.e. a person who is not the servant nor is under the control of the defendant. However, due care must be taken by the defendant to avoid the damages if the act of the stranger can be foreseen by the defendant.
Simply put, absolute liability is the application of strict liability, but without the exceptions.
The rule of absolute liability was evolved in the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, and took strict liability one step further by stating that an enterprise which is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity is absolutely liable for the harm resulting from the operation of such activity, and to compensate to all those who are affected by the accident.
Facts: On the 4th and the 6th of December, 1985 in Delhi, there was severe leakage of oleum gas which this took place in one of the units of Shriram Foods and Fertilizers Industries, which belonged to the Delhi Cloth Mills Ltd. Due to this, an advocate practicing in the Tis Hazari Court had died and many others were affected by the same. A writ petition by way of public interest litigation (PIL) was brought to the court.
Issue:. It was contested that if all the tragedies arising from the conduct of the large factories follow the rule of strict liability, they will fall under the exceptions and get away scot free for the damage they have caused in the conduct of their activity.
Judgment: The Court had noted that this was the second case of large-scale leakage of a deadly gas in India within the period of a year in India, as a year earlier more than 3000 people had died due to the leakage of gas from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal and lakhs of others were subjected to various other kinds of diseases. If the rule of strict liability laid down in Rylands v. Fletcher was applied to such situations, then those who had established “hazardous and inherently dangerous” industries in and around thickly populated areas could escape the liability for the havoc caused thereby by pleading some exception. The Supreme Court therefore evolved a new rule – the rule of “Absolute Liability”, as coined by the then Chief Justice of India PN Bhagwati.
It expressly declared that the new rule was not subject to any of the exceptions under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher. The Court gave two reasons justifying the rule:
- The enterprise carrying on such hazardous and inherently dangerous activity for private profit has a social obligation to compensate those suffering therefrom, and it should absorb such loss as overhead; and
- The enterprise alone has the resource to discover and guard against such hazards and dangers.
The Court explained its position in the following words: “If the enterprise is permitted to carry on any 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 overheads. This principle is also sustainable on the ground that the enterprise also has the resource to discover and guard against hazards or dangers and to provide warning against potential hazard.”
The Court also laid down that the measure of compensation payable, that it should be correlated to the capacity of the enterprise, so that it can have the deterrent effect and the larger and more prosperous enterprises providing a greater amount of compensation for the damages they have caused.
To conclude, below are the essential distinctions between strict liability and absolute liability.
|Hazardous or inherently dangerous activities
||Any other activities
|Escape not necessary – liability within and outside premise
|No exceptions to the rule
||Provides for exceptions
|Applies to Non-Natural and Natural uses of land
||Applies only to Non-Natural use of land
The difference between Strict and Absolute liability was clearly mentioned by the Supreme Court in M.C.Mehta v. Union of India, where the court summarised it broadly as follows:
- In Absolute Liability only those enterprises shall be held liable which are involved in hazardous or inherently dangerous activities.
- The escape of a dangerous thing from one’s own land is not necessary. Absolute liability is applicable to those injured within the premise and outside the premise.
- The rule of Absolute liability does not have any exceptions, unlike the rule of Strict Liability.
- The rule elucidated upon in Ryland v. Fletcher applies only to the non-natural use of land, but absolute liability applies even to the natural use of land. If a person uses a dangerous substance and if such substance escapes, he shall be held liable even though he have taken proper care.
- The extent of damages depends on the magnitude and financial capability of the institute. The Supreme Court also stated that the enterprise must be held to be under an “obligation to ensure that the hazardous or inherently dangerous activities in which it is engaged must be conducted with the highest standards of safety and security and if any harm results on account of such negligent activity, the enterprise/institute must be held absolutely liable to compensate. for any damage caused and no opportunity is to given to answer to the enterprise to say that it had taken all reasonable care and that the harm caused without any negligence on his part”.
 (1868) LR 3 HL 330
 AIR 1987 SC 1086