“Absolute Liability Unveiled: Navigating the Legal Landscape and Unravelling the Consequences”

“Absolute Liability Unveiled: Navigating the Legal Landscape and Unravelling the Consequences”

Although the idea of absolute responsibility dates back to the 19th century, it was not widely accepted in India until much later. The judiciary did not come to understand the necessity of severe and total enforcement of culpability within the Indian context until after the Oleum Gas Leak Case. Up to now, the Common Law theory has been followed; nevertheless, in India, the notion of absolute responsibility has introduced alteration to the doctrine.

When someone commits a tort, they are obligated to compensate the victim for their wrongdoing. This compensation is known as a liability. Another name for this liability is the “without fault” liability. Because the person used something hazardous, he is liable in this case. If someone experiences loss or damage as a result of these kinds of things, the offender is fully responsible and bears no fault at all. If an associate degree trader engages in any risky activity that results in widespread harm or damage as a means of achieving industrial gain, then that trader bears full responsibility.

It’s basically Strict Liability (No Fault Liability) without exceptions.


  1. Non Natural Use of Land:

Water gathered on property for residential use does not constitute a non-natural use of the land; but, holding it in vast quantities, such as in a reservoir, as was the case in Ryland v. Fletcher, does. The distinction between natural and non-natural land usage while taking the local social environment into consideration. While cultivating plants and trees on land is seen as a natural use of the land, planting toxic trees will be regarded as a non-natural use of the land. In the event that a disagreement emerges between the plaintiff and the defendant notwithstanding the defendant’s customary use of the land, the court will not hold the defendant liable.

  1. Escape of Hazardous Substance: 

In general the word “escape” describes the discharge or leaking of a harmful material or ingredient from the defendant’s property. According to the doctrine of absolute liability, those involved in some extremely risky operations have full responsibility for any damage caused by these chemicals escaping, regardless of carelessness or fault. Because it concentrates on the unintentional or uncontrolled discharge of hazardous chemicals, the idea of “escape” in absolute responsibility is essential. No matter how much care is taken, the person involved in the ultra-hazardous activity is nonetheless accountable for any damages if a poisonous chemical, radioactive substance, or other hazardous material escapes and harms people or the environment.

  1. Hazardous/Dangerous Substance: 

According to the established guidelines, a thing’s liability for escaping from someone’s property only materializes if the item being gathered is hazardous, meaning it may injure or harm other people or their property if it were to escape. The idea of strict responsibility has been applied in numerous tort cases across the world, holding that some items fall under the category of dangerous things. 

Examples of these things include vast bodies of water, gas, electricity, vibrations, sewage, flagpoles, explosives, unpleasant smells, rusty wires, etc.

  1. Mischief:

It’s crucial to remember that circumstances involving very risky actions and the possible harm brought on by dangerous chemicals escaping are usually covered by absolute liability. “Mischief” typically connotes wrongdoing, deliberate injury, or damage. However, absolute culpability often does not depend on purpose or intentional behaviour. Rather, it makes people or organizations firmly accountable for damages brought about by dangerous materials escaping, regardless of whether the breakout was due to carelessness or purpose.

Establishment of Absolute Liability in India:

The notion of Strict Liability was developed by the court in the Rylands v. Fletcher case, and it was deemed sufficient and unambiguous in India. Blackburn J. established the concept of Strict Liability since the existing legislation was insufficient to hold the defendant accountable in this case. Later, Lords Cairns modified this principle to limit the defendant’s liability to acts and damages that could be directly linked to the non-natural usage of the land. In light of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and the Oleum Gas Leak, the Indian judiciary determined that it was necessary to start a concept to deal with these infrequent incidents, wherein the defendant should always be held accountable for the activity that resulted in such extensive damage. As a result, the Indian judiciary, led by Justice Bhagwati, ultimately adopted the idea of absolute liability as being applicable in circumstances similar to those of the case in the M.C. Mehta v. Union of India case.

Bhopal Gas Tragedy (1984):

Facts: Methyl isocyanides and alpha naphtha are the chemicals needed to create the herbicide Sevin. The Union Cambridge Corporation, an American business, established a subsidiary in Bhopal since it is a strategic location with good transportation connections. After the Indian public acquired a roughly 40.1% stake in the company, the created Indian subsidiary was subsequently renamed The Union Cambridge India Limited (UCIL). Forty tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC), which were stored at the UCC’s Indian subsidiary in Bhopal, were massively released from Tank E106 on the evening of December 2–3, 1984. Due to the plant’s establishment in a densely populated region, many people and animals were victims of the deadly leaking MIC within less than an hour, ultimately leading to their deaths. An estimated 3500+ people died instantly, while more than 6 lakh people were critically injured. About 20,000 people have died as a result of the catastrophe in the decades that have passed. According to estimates from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), 62.58% of Bhopal victims had inhaled poisonous substances, and those who survived may have developed physical morbidities.

Due to a lack of knowledge regarding the gas ebullition, the physicians’ involvement in the treatment and Medicare was ineffective. The UCC’s reliance on trade confidentiality as a legitimate exception to withhold the specific amount of gas that escaped is one of the reasons for these consequences. 

After the accident, the victims—who either lost their lives or suffered irreversible disabilities—have embarked on an arduous journey in search of justice. The two questions that are put to the legislation for consideration are: first, on what foundation will the boundaries for calculating the obligations of the company that processes such a hazardous material with invalidated safety regulations be established? Another factor was how the government planned to address the situation and stop further harm by putting in place the required safety measures.


The lawsuit went to court in India after the American court dismissed it. The Indian Union filed a lawsuit in 1986, seeking damages in the amount of 3.5 billion rupees before the Bhopal District Court. A 30% reduction to 2.5 billion rupees was subsequently made by the Madhya Pradesh high court. Subsequently, the Madhya Pradesh high court’s reduced interim award was challenged by the Indian government in an appeal to the top court. The case, which concerned the state and position of victims who were suffering from despair and hopelessness, was considered by a five-judge court. The Apex court delivered its ruling on February 14, 1989, putting an end to the protracted legal process and offering an instant solution, following four years of the biggest industrial disaster in history. 

In actuality, the public’s confidence has been damaged as they believed that the offender might escape responsibility by using the strict liability doctrine’s exceptions. In contrast, the Apex Court [5] maintained UCC’s responsibilities and mandated that they pay 470 million USD (about Rs. 700 crores) in compensation, citing the absolute responsibility doctrine. It is thought to have been a poor decision because the fixed damages are only 15% of the initial claim of $3.3 million, even if the Indian government has achieved the “golden justice” by forcing the firm to pay $470 million. Sadly, it is insufficient to make up for all the harm brought about by the calamity. Regarding the allocation of the given compensation, the relatives of the dead received Rs. 1 lakh, those who suffered permanent harm received Rs. 50,000, and those who were just momentarily hurt received Rs. 25,000.

MC Mehta v Union of India (Oleum Gas Leakage)

Facts: A writ case for the closure and transfer of the Shriram Caustic Chlorine and Sulphuric Acid Plant to a place where there is no genuine risk to the public’s health and safety was filed before the Supreme Court by Mehta, a social activist lawyer. Oleum gas spilled from one of its units on December 4 and 6, 1985, while the case was still pending. The plant’s gas leak caused significant injury to the neighboring population. The leaking occurred when the oleum gas tank ruptured due to the collapse of the building upon which it was constructed, and the residents were extremely afraid. The Supreme Court ruled that because the concerns posed entail significant legal difficulties pertaining to the interpretation of Articles 21 and 32 of the Constitution, the case should be transferred to a bigger court. The court had to interpret Article 32 to determine whether or not a writ might be granted in addition to compensation. Article 21, which guarantees the right to life and liberty, was also to be construed as being crucial to the public interest with regard to private corporations.

Issue: The rule of Rylands v Fletcher will apply here or not?


Chief Justice Bhagwati said that although Rylands v. Fletcher established a responsibility theory, there may be another principle that applies in this particular instance. ” A person who enters his property for personal gain and gathers or stores anything that can escape and cause trouble must do so at his own risk; if he does not, he is first responsible for any harm that results from the escape.” the court held, was the rule that evolved in the precedent case in 1866. The court did note that this regulation was in place during a period when science and technology had not yet advanced to the point that it had, and that laws should not be impeded by long-standing customs.

Evolution in law:

The law should continue to develop in order to reflect and stay up with the rapidly shifting economic, technical, and social landscape of society. The court went on to say, “We feel that an organization engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry that may jeopardize the health and safety of those who work there and reside nearby owes an absolute and non-delegable duty to the community to ensure that no harm results to anyone as a result of the hazardous or inherently dangerous nature of the activity which it has undertaken, and if any harm results on account of such activity, the organization must be absolutely liable to compensate for such harm.” The organization should not be able to claim that it took all reasonable precautions and that the harm happened without negligence.


As was previously said, there have occasionally been exceptions to absolute liability. In the past, an individual accused of the same crime may benefit from the unanticipated nature of the occurrence and the lack of mens rea. Such exclusions became unnecessary as industry and society developed along with this concept, and the idea as it exists now evolved to become what it is.

With regard to all laws and their applicability to the current circumstances, India needs the progressive and forward-thinking position that the Supreme Court assumed in the M.C. Mehta v. UOI case. Because of its application, the expansion of absolute liability has led to improved justice and decisions; as a result, it is important to make sure that the principle’s growth is upheld by subsequent, fair court rulings.

Author:- Raj Mohan Tiwari, India International University Of Legal Education and Research, Goa

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