THE RULE OF STRICT AND ABSOLUTE LIABILITY
Situations where a person may be liable for the acts or the damages even though he may not be negligent in causing the same, or without intention of harm. Situations like this is known as ‘No Fault Liability’. This concept was developed from the decision of the House of Lords in Rylands v. Fletcher in 1868. Later, in India, the concept was recognized in the decision of Supreme Court of India in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India in 1987.
The concept developed from the decision of Rylands v. Fletcher is known as the ‘Rule in Rylands v. Fletcher’ or ‘Rule of Strict Liability’. While developing the strict liability rule in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, the Supreme Court of India also developed a rule that was not subject to any exceptions and called it as ‘The Rule of Absolute Liability’.
In Rylands v. Fletcher, the mill owners of the land i.e. the defendants, had constructed a reservoir in the coal mining area of Lancashire on their land for energy requirements. The defendants hired independent contractors and engineers for this work to be completed. Due to the negligence of independent contracts and engineers, the water over flooded through the filled-in-shaft of an abandoned coal mine and flooded connecting passageways into the plaintiff’s active mine nearby causing huge loss to him. Fletcher sued Rylands.
The case was progenitor of the doctrine of strict liability for abnormally dangerous conditions and activities.This case paved the way for judgement of more cases on nuisance and liability in case of negligence. Strict liability states a person responsible for damage or loss occurred to other by the activity of another without the concern of elements such as negligence, mens rea and any kind of remote liability. Under the principal, even if one’s activity is not faulty, he can still be held liable for negligence. The defendants owed a duty of care towards plaintiff by doing unnatural use of land even if the defendant was unaware of the fact that there were shafts which could lead water into plaintiff’s mine and it does not matter whether the defendant took care as he is responsible for the damage.
For the application of the rule, the following elements must be present. first, there must be some dangerous thing brought by the person on his land. Second, the thing kept or brought by the person must escape. Third, it must be non-natural use of land.
However, There are exceptions to the rule of Rylands v. Fletcher that have been recognized over the time. First is plaintiff’s own default. If the damage is caused due to plaintiff’s own default, then it’s a good defense for the defendants to escape from liability. Second, vis major or act of god. If damage arises from the circumstances which no human foresight could have foreseen or predict without any human intervention, then the defense of act of god can be pleaded. Third, consent of the plaintiff. If the plaintiff has consented to the accumulation of the dangerous thing on the defendant’s land, the liability of defendant would not arise. Forth, Act of third party. If the harm or damage has been caused to due to acts of third party, who is unknown to both the parties, the defendant will not be liable under this rule. Fifth, statutory authority. The acts done under the authority of a statue is a defense to an action for tort.
On December 3, 1984, there was a gas leak in union carbide plant of Bhopal. More than 3000 persons died and thousands of people were subjected to serious health issues. The Supreme Court of India was of opinion that if the rule of strict liability was to be imposed in such ‘hazardously and dangerous situations’ then these industries can easily run away from the liability by pleading one or another exception. The Supreme Court, undoubtedly took a bold step and evolved the concept of absolute liability and expressly declared that the new rule was not subject to any exception under any circumstance. The court also laid down that the measure of compensation payable should be in proportion to the magnitude and capacity of the enterprise, so that the same can have deterrent effect.