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Alpana Sharma

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Strict LiabilityAlpana sharma

Contents

• Introduction of the Strict Liability & importance of it in current scenario

• Facts of the case

• Issue involved in the case

• Evolution of the Strict Liability in India through this case

• Judgment of the case

• Difference between the Strict Liability in India with respect to the principle of it evolved in the Rylands v. Fletcher

• Conclusion

Introduction of the Strict Liability & importance of it in current scenario

Strict Liability is the liability in which the wrongdoer is liable to the acts for which he is not responsible. The need for it was felt in the 19th century, to improve working and safety standards in factories. The doctrine of Strict Liability has formed its foundation in the England’s case Rylands vs. Fletcher in which : The defendant, owned a mill, where he constructed a reservoir to supply water to the mill. This reservoir was constructed over old coal mines, and the mill owner had no reason to suspect that these old diggings led to an operating colliery. The water in the reservoir ran down the old shafts and flooded the colliery. Blackburn J. held the mill owner to be liable, on the principle that “The person who for his own purposes brings on his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it in at his peril, and if he does not do so, is prima facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape”. On appeal this principle of liability without fault was affirmed by the House of Lords but restricted to non- natural users vide. Thus, corporations that handle water, electricity, oil, noxious fumes, colliery spoil and poisonous vegetation are covered by this doctrine. Negligence of the victims is no excuse. The doctrine also operates as a loss-distribution mechanism: The person indulging in such hazardous activities (usually a corporation) being in the best position to spread the loss through insurance and higher prices of its products. However, later decisions in England diluted the principle by introducing several exceptions. The Shriram judgment categorically said that such exceptions would not be applicable in India. The present verdict further emphasises this point and expands its scope.

The doctrine of Strict Liability evolved in India the case of MC Mehta’s where the Supreme Court had imposed the “strict liability” principle on erring industries. It ruled that “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 overhead”. The court also emphasised that there are no exceptions to the rule of strict liability. Moreover, the amount of compensation would depend upon the capacity of the enterprise and not the earning capacity of the individual victims. In the Union of India vs Prabhakaran, where the Supreme Court had extended its cover to public utilities like the railways, electricity distribution companies, public corporations and local bodies “which may be social utility undertakings not working for private profit”. In this case a woman fell on a railway track and was fatally run over. Her husband demanded compensation. The railways argued that she was negligent as she tried to board a moving train. The Supreme Court rejected this contention and said that her “contributory negligence” should not be considered in such untoward incidents — the railways has “strict liability”. The Supreme Court had applied this doctrine to the electricity mishaps. An electric wire had snapped and fallen on the road. On a rainy night, a cyclist came in contact with it. He died on the spot. His widow demanded damages from the electricity authorities, MPSEB vs Shail Kumari, 2002. The board argued that the wire belonged to a pilferer and that it was not negligent. Rejecting this contention, the Supreme Court said: “It is no defence on the part of the board that somebody committed mischief by siphoning off energy to his private property and the electrocution was from such diverted line… Authorities manning such dangerous commodities have extra duty to chalk out measures to prevent such mishaps.” The basis of the liability is the “foreseeable risk inherent in the very nature of such activity”.

Strict Liability doctrine can be define as the acts or omissions which are held liable without the mens rea (mental intent). It is a standard for liability which may exist in either a criminal or civil context. A rule specifying strict liability makes a person legally responsible for the damage and loss caused by his or her acts and omissions regardless of culpability including the fault in criminal law. In tort law, strict liability is the imposition of liability on a party without a finding of fault (such as negligence or tortious intent). The claimant need only prove that the tort occurred and that the defendant was responsible.

In criminal law, strict liability is liability for which mens rea (Latin for “guilty mind”) does not have to be proven in relation to one or more elements comprising the actus reus (Latin for “guilty act”) although intention, recklessness or knowledge may be required in relation to other elements of the offence. The liability is said to be strict because defendants will be convicted even though they were genuinely ignorant of one or more factors that made their acts or omissions criminal. The defendants may therefore not be culpable in any real way, i.e. there is not even criminal negligence, the least blameworthy level of mens rea. These laws are applied either in regulatory offences enforcing social behaviour where minimal stigma attaches to a person upon conviction, or where society is concerned with the prevention of harm, and wishes to maximise the deterrent value of the offence.

The courts to apply this doctrine must examine the overall purpose of the statute. If the intention is to introduce quasi-criminal offences, strict liability will be acceptable to give quick penalties to encourage future compliance, e.g. fixed-penalty parking offences. But, if the policy issues involved are sufficiently significant and the punishments more severe, the test must be whether reading in a mens rearequirement will defeat Parliament’s intention in creating the particular offence, i.e. if defendants might escape liability too easily by pleading ignorance, this would not address the “mischief” that Parliament was attempting to remedy.

M.C. Mehta And Anr vs Union Of India & Ors on 20 December, 1986

BENCH: BHAGWATI, P.N. (CJ) MISRA RANGNATH OZA, G.L. (J) DUTT, M.M. (J) SINGH, K.N. (J)

CITATION: 1987 AIR 1086 1987 SCR (1) 819; 1987 SCC (1) 395 JT 1987 (1) 1; 1986 SCALE (2)1188

Facts of the case: The petitioners, in this writ petition under Art. 32, sought a direction for closure of the various units of Shriram Foods & Fertilizers Industries on the ground that they were hazardous to the community. During the pendency of the petition, there was escape of oleum gas from one of the units of Shriram. The Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board and the Delhi Bar Association filed applications for award of compensation to the persons who had suffered harm on account of escape of oleum gas.

Issue involved in the case

(1) What is the scope and ambit of the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court under Art. 32 since the applications for compensation are sought to be maintained under that Article; (2) Whether Art. 21 is available against Shriram which is owned by Delhi Cloth Mills Limited, a public company limited by shares and which is engaged in an industry vital to public interest and with potential to affect the life and health of the people; and (3) What is the measure of liability of an enterprise which is engaged in an hazardous or inherently dangerous industry, if by reason of an accident occurring in such industry, persons die or are injured. Does the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher, (1866 Law Report 1 Excheq- uer 265) apply or is there any other principle on which the liability can be determined.

Issue to be further elaborate here is, “ what is the measure of liability of an enterprise which is engaged in an hazardous or inherently dangerous industry”.

Evolution of the Strict Liability in India through this case

The rule in Rylands v. Fletcher (supra) laid down a principle of liability that if a person who brings on to his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do harm and such thing escapes and does damage to another, he is liable to compensate for the damage caused. This rule applies only to non-natural user of the land and it does not apply to things naturally on the land or where the escape is due to an act of God and an act of a stranger or the default of the person injured or where the thing which escapes is present by the consent of the person injured or in certain cases where there is statutory authority. The rule evolved, when all the developments of science and technology had not taken place, cannot afford any guidance in evolving any standard of liability consistent with the constitutional norms and the needs of the present day economy and social structure. In a modern industrial society with highly developed scientific knowledge and technology where hazardous or inherently dangerous industries are necessary to carry on as part of developmental programme, the Court need not feel inhibited by this rule merely because the new law does not recognise the rule of strict and absolute liability in case of an enterprise engaged in hazardous and dangerous activity(1).

The Supreme Court in India said that law has to grow in order to satisfy the needs of the fast changing society and keep abreast with the economic developments taking place in the country. Law cannot afford to remain static. The Court cannot allow judicial thinking to be constricted by reference to the law as it prevails in England or in any other foreign country. It also said that, it has to build up its own jurisprudence, evolve new principles and lay down new norms which would adequately deal with the new problems which arise in a highly industrialized economy. Also the Court should not hesitate to evolve such principles of liability merely because it has not been so done in England. In the past years the court has expanded the horizon of the Article 12 and the purpose of it has not been to destroy the raison deter of creating corporations but to advance the human rights jurisprudence.

An enterprise which is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry which poses a potential threat to the health and safety of the persons working in the factory and residing in the surrounding areas owes an absolute non-delegable duty to the community to ensure that if any harm results to anyone, the enterprise must be held to be under an obligation to provide that the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity must be conducted with the highest standards of safety and if any harm results on account of such activity the enterprise must be absolutely liable to compensate for such harm irrespective of the fact that the enterprise had taken all reasonable care and that the harm occurred without any negligence on its part. If the enterprise is permitted to carry on an 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 activity as an appropriate item of its overheads. The enterprise alone has the resource to discover and guard against hazards or dangers and to provide warning against potential hazards. The measure of compensation in such kind of cases must be co-related to the magnitude and capacity of the enterprise because such compensation must have a deterrent effect. The larger and more prosperous the enterprise, the greater must be the amount of compensation payable by it for the harm caused on account of an accident in carrying on of the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity by the enterprise.

Indian Courts are not bound by the American exposition of constitutional law, because the social conditions in India are different.

Judgment of the case

Original jurisdiction – Under Article 32 of the Constitution of India.

Justice Bhagwati delivered the judgment that the Bench of three Judge permitted Shriram Foods and Fertiliser Industries to restart its power plant as also plants for manufacture of caustic chlorine including its by-products and recovery plants like soap, glycerine and technical hard oil, subject to the conditions set out in the Judgment. That would have ordinarily put an end to the main controversy raised in the writ petition which was filed in order to obtain a direction for closure of the various units of Shriram on the ground that they were hazardous to the community and the dipute was only, whether the units of Shriram should be directed to be removed from the place where they are presently situate and relocated in another place where there would not be much human habitation so that there would not be any real danger to the health and safety of the people. But while the writ petition was pending there was escape of oleum gas from one of the units of Shriram on 4th and 6th December, 1985 and applications were filed by the Delhi Legal Aid & Advice Board and the Delhi Bar Association for award of compensation to the persons who had suffered harm on account of escape of oleum gas. These applications for compensation raised a number of issues of great constitutional importance and the Bench of three Judges therefore formulated the issues and asked the petitioner and those supporting him as also Shriram to file their respective written submissions. When these applications for compensation came up for hearing it was felt that since the issues raised involved substantial questions of law relating to the interpretation of Articles 21 and 32 of the Constitution.

Shriram is engaged in the manufacture of caustic soda, chlorine etc. Its various units are set up in a single complex surrounded by thickly populated colonies. Chlorine gas is admittedly dangerous to life and’ health. If the gas escapes either from the storage tank or from the filled cylinders or from any other point in the course of production, the health and wellbeing of the people living in the vicinity can be seriously affected. Thus Shriram is engaged in an activity which has the potential to invade the right to life of large sections of people.

The rule in Rylands v. Fletcher was evolved in the year 1866, the liability under the rule is strict and it is no defence that the thing escaped without that person’s willful act, default or neglect or even that he had no knowledge of its existence. This rule laid down a principle of liability that if a person who brings on to his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do harm and such thing escapes and does damage to another, he is liable to compensate for the damage caused. This rule applies only to non-natural user of the land and it does not apply to things naturally on the land or where the escape is due to an act of God and an act of a stranger or the default of the person injured or where the thing which escapes is present by the consent of the person injured or in certain cases where there is statutory authority. The court said that they no longer need the crutches of a foreign legal order. Although, they can receive light from whatever source it comes but can’t rely fully on them they have to build up its own jurisprudence and cannot countenance an argument that merely because the new law does not recognize the rule of strict and absolute liability in cases of hazardous or dangerous liability or the rule as laid down in Rylands v. Fletcher as is developed in England recognises certain limitations and responsibilities. An enterprise which is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry which poses a potential threat to the health and safety of the persons working in the factory and residing in the surrounding areas owes an absolute and non-delegable duty to the community to ensure that no harm results to anyone on account of hazardous or inherently dangerous nature of the activity which it has undertaken. The enterprise must be held to be under an obligation to provide that the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity in which it is engaged must be conducted with the highest standards of safety and if any harm results on account of such activity, the enterprise must be absolutely liable to compensate for such harm and it should be no answer to the enterprise to say that it had taken all reasonable care and that the harm occurred without any negligence on its part. Since the persons harmed on account of the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity carried on by the enterprise would not be in a position to isolate the process of operation from the hazardous preparation of substance or any other related element that caused the harm must be held strictly liable for causing such harm as a part of the social cost for carrying on the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity. If the enterprise is permitted to carry on an 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 over-heads. Such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity for private profit can be tolerated only on condition that the enterprise engaged in such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity indemnifies all those who suffer on account of the carrying on of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity regardless of whether it is carried on carefully or not. This principle is also sustainable on the ground that the enterprise alone has the resource to discover and guard against hazards or dangers and to provide warning against potential hazards. Therefore, the court held 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-a-vis the tortious principle of strict liability under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher (supra). Also, pointed out that the measure of compensation in the kind of cases referred to in the preceding paragraph must be co-related to the magnitude and capacity of the enterprise because such compensation must have a deferent effect. The larger and more prosperous the enterprise, the greater must be the amount of compensation pay- able by it for the harm caused on account of an accident in the carrying on of the hazardous or inherently dangerous activity by the enterprise.

Difference between the Strict Liability in India with respect to the principle of it evolved in the Rylands v. Fletcher

• The rule in Rylands v. Fletcher requires non-natural use of land by the defendant and escape from his land of the thing, which causes damage. But the rule in MC Mehta v. Union of India is not dependant upon any such conditions. The necessary requirements for applicability of the new rule are that the defendant is engaged in hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and that harm results to anyone on account of an accident in the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity

• The rule in Rylands v. Fletcher will not cover cases of harm to persons within the premises for the rule requires escape of the thing, which causes harm from the premises. The new rule makes no distinction between the persons within the premises where the enterprise is carried on and persons outside the premises for escape of the thing causing harm from the premises is not a necessary condition for the applicability of the rule.

• Damages awardable where the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher applies will be ordinary or compensatory where as in Methas case the court can allow exemplary damages and the larger and more prosperous the enterprise, the greater must be the amount of compensation payable by it.

Conclusion

Absolute legal responsibility for an injury that can be imposed on the wrongdoer without proof of carelessness or fault.

With the development of the scientific technology the need for the inherently hazardous substance increasing, in order to meet the development program, but, with this simultaneously the law of India is also indulging into the theory of the “welfare state”. So to protect its people the court of India is more stringent & rigorous in its approach to adopt the Strict Liability principle, comparatively to the England. So, 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.

Bibliography

• en.wikipedia.org

• lawmatters.in

• www.business-standard.com

 

 

 

 

 


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chandru sharma
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brilliant article. i would have liked a comparison with the judgement on the Bhopal case and both the civil and criminal liabilities therein.

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