This article has been written by Ritika Sharma, pursuing B.A. LL.B from Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, GGSIPU, Delhi. In this article, the concepts of absolute liability and strict liability has been discussed along with the differences of the same.
The law of tort has been originated from the whole concept of English Common law. It has its roots within the same. The law of torts is actually the civil wrong which leads to civil damages. Since this law is not codified, it becomes important to rely upon the precedents and jurisprudence in order to understand these principles. There have been numerous notions which have been confusing and require a deep and clear understanding. The general rule of tort liability is that the person who causes damage should pay and should compensate. In some cases, the liability is raised on the third parties as well.
However, most of the principles of the law of torts originate from English common law while Indian courts have been successful in modifying the same to meet basic requirements. The two principles of absolute and strict liability are the ones which levy liabilities on the industrial and business aspects when there are commercial activities which actually cause the damages to the public.
The rule of a Strict liability provides that if there is any commercial activity which can prove to be harmful; the same should not be carried on. The liability arises even when all necessary and essential precautions are being taken in order to prevent the damage.
The Strict liability is not just a concept but it is actually an imposition of liability on a party without a finding of fault and claimant need only prove that the tort occurred and that the defendant was responsible. The law of torts implies the strict liability rule to such situations wherein the conditions seem to be inherently dangerous.
Under the strict liability rule, the law makes people pay compensation for damages even if they are not at fault. In other words, people have to pay compensation to victims even if they took all the necessary precautions and infect permissions allowing such activities often include this principle as a pre-condition.
In the leading case of Rylands v. Fletcher, the Rule of Strict liability originated. The defendant owned a mill and to improve the supply of the water, he arranged a reservoir over there. The water escaped and damaged the mine of the plaintiff. The court disagreed upon the argument that the defendant was not at fault and explained the rule of strict liability. It said that when somebody keeps something on his property for his benefit, it should not escape and in case it escapes, the owner of that thing must compensate the victim even if he was not negligent.
In the case of the Meghalaya Energy Corporation v. Shri Sukendra Sangma, the court did not recognize the rule of strict and absolute liability in case of this enterprise which was engaged in hazardous and dangerous activity which operate vis-à-vis the tortious principle of strict liability under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher.
Absolute liability refers to a standard of legal liability which is found in tort and criminal law. In order to convict someone for an ordinary crime, a person should not only have to commit a criminal action but it is required to have a deliberate intention which is mens rea. A company is required not to engage in such activities which can prove to be extremely hazardous. In such cases, this type of company or any person engaging in such activity have to pay compensation as a mandatory remedy, whether or not such disaster was caused by its negligence.
The Supreme Court, in the M.C. Mehta vs Union of India, found that the principle of strict liability is inadequate in order to protect the rights of citizens and it replaced it with the principle of absolute liability principle. The incident of leakage of Oleum gas from a fertilizer plant of Shriram Food and Fertilisers Ltd. complex at Delhi caused irreparable damage to several people and the due to the prevalence of the concept of absolute liability, there was no defence which was provided to them. Article 21 of the Constitution declares that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law and this specific right is available to both citizens and non-citizens and hence the court wanted corporations to be made fully liable for future undeserved suffering of innocent citizens and held that a hazardous enterprise has an absolute non-delegable duty to the community.
In the case of Union Carbide Company vs. Union of India, which is popularly known as Bhopal Gas leak Tragedy, the Supreme Court held that Union Carbide Corporation, currently owned by Dow Chemical Co, was liable to pay compensation to the victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy and the curative petition was also denied.
The distinction is clear between strict and absolute liability and was clearly mentioned by the Supreme Court in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, where the court made a summarization as follows:
- Only those enterprises shall be held liable, in absolute liability, which are involved in hazardous or the activities which are inherently.
- The very escape of a dangerous thing from the person’s own land is not necessary. Absolute liability is applicable to those injured within the premise and outside the premise and the rule of Absolute liability does not have any exceptions, unlike the rule of Strict Liability.
- The rule has been elaborated keeping in mind the case of Rylands v. Fletcher as it only applies only to the non-natural use of land, but absolute liability applies even to the natural use of land and if an individual tends to use a dangerous substance and if such substance escapes he shall be liable even though he has taken proper care.
- The extent of damages actually depends upon the very magnitude and financial capability of the corporation It was also stated by the Supreme Court that the enterprise should 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 or the institute must be held absolutely liable to compensate”.
- Franklin, Mark, Tort Law and Alternatives: Cases and Materials, University Casebook Series, ISBN-13: 978-1634593007
- Gilead, Israel, On the Transformation of Economic Analysis of Tort Law, Journal of European Tort Law, Issue 3, 2017; Hebrew University of Jerusalem Legal Research Paper No. 17-26
- Ryland v. Fletcher, (1868) LR 3 HL 330
- M.C. Mehta vs Union of India, 1987 SCR (1) 819
- Union Carbide Company vs. Union of India, (AIR 1987 SC 1086)
- P. S. Atchuthen Pillai, The Law of Tort, Eastern Book Co, 8 Ed, 1987 
- Ratanlal & Dhirajlal, The Law of Torts, Butterworths