Absolute Liability

Absolute liability is a standard of legal liability found in tort and criminal law of various legal jurisdictions.

To be convicted of an ordinary crime, in certain jurisdictions, a person must not only have committed a criminal action, but also have had a deliberate intention or guilty mind (mens rea). In a crime of strict liability (criminal) or absolute liability, a person could be guilty even if there was no intention to commit a crime.

The difference between strict and absolute liability is whether the defence of a mistake of fact is available: in a crime of absolute liability, a mistake of fact is not a defence.

In India, absolute liability is a standard of tort liability which stipulates that where an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and harm results to anyone on account of an accident in the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity resulting,

For example, in escape of toxic gas the enterprise is strictly and absolutely liable to compensate all those who are affected by the accident and such liability is not subject to any of the exceptions which operate vis-à-vis the tortious principle of strict liability under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher.

In other words absolute liability is strict liability without any exception. This liability standard has been laid down by the Indian Supreme Court in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (Oleum Gas Leak Case). These exceptions include:-

  • Plaintiff’s own mistake
  • Plaintiff’s consent
  • Natural disasters
  • Third Party’s mistake
  • Part of a statutory duty

The Indian Judiciary tried to make a strong effort following the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, December, 1984 (Union Carbide Company vs. Union of India) to enforce greater amount of protection to the Public.

The Doctrine of Absolute Liability was therefore evolved in Oleum Gas Leak Case and can be said to be a strong legal tool against rogue corporations that were negligent towards health risks for the public.

This legal doctrine was much more powerful than the legal Doctrine of Strict Liability developed in the UK case Ryland’s Vs. Fletcher. This meant that the defaulter could be held liable for even third party errors when the public was at a realistic risk. This could ensure stricter compliance to standards that were meant to safeguard the public.

Rules of Strict and Absolute Liability are based on the concept of ‘No fault liability’.At times a person may be held responsible for some wrong though there was no negligence or intention on his part to do such wrong.

This rule was laid down by the House of Lords in Rylands v Fletcher and hence it is also commonly termed as the Rule in Rylands v Fletcher.

In the case of Rylands v Fletcher, the defendant appointed some independent contractors to construct a reservoir in order to provide water to his mill. There were some unused shafts under the site, which the contractors failed to locate. After water was filled in the reservoir, it burst through those shafts and flooded adjoining coalmines belonging to the plaintiff. Even though the defendant was not negligent and had no knowledge of the shafts, he was held liable.

In India, this rule was formulated in the case of M.C. Mehta v Union of India (1987), wherein the Supreme Court termed it as ‘Absolute Liability’ This rule was also followed in the case of Indian Council for  Enviro-Legal Action v  Union of  India   (1996) Section 92A of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1938 also recognises this concept of ‘liability without fault’. The ingredients of the Rule of Strict Liability are:

  • Some hazardous thing must be brought by the defendant on his land.
  • There must be an escape of such thing from that land.
  • There must be a non-natural use of the land.

Exceptions to the Rule of Strict Liability:

  • If the escape of the hazardous good was due to plaintiff’s own fault or negligence
  • Vis Major or Act of God is a good defence in an action under the Rule of Strict Liability.
  • In cases where the wrong done has been by someone who is a stranger and the defendant has no control over him
  • Cases where the plaintiff has given his consent to accumulate the hazardous thing in the defendant’s land for the purpose of common benefit Any act done under the authority of a statute

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By Hassham

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