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Concept of Absolute Liability | Civil Law for Judiciary Exams PDF Download

Introduction

  • The concept of absolute liability originated in India through the famous M.C Mehta v. Union of India case, commonly known as the Oleum gas leak case.
  • In the past, India followed the strict liability doctrine inherited from British law. However, this doctrine had numerous exceptions, allowing the guilty party to escape punishment by exploiting these loopholes.
  • Following the tragic Bhopal gas leak incident, which resulted in significant loss of life and long-term health issues for many, the Indian judiciary moved away from strict liability to introduce the principle of absolute liability.
  • Absolute liability, as established by the Supreme Court, is broader and more encompassing compared to the rules set by the House of Lords in the Rylands v. Fletcher case. It leaves no room for the defendant to use any defenses; it is a form of strict liability without exceptions.

Key Points about Absolute Liability Doctrine

  • Origin: The absolute liability doctrine was formulated in India post the Oleum gas leak case to address the shortcomings of the strict liability principle.
  • Comparison: Unlike the previous strict liability doctrine, absolute liability holds the party accountable without the possibility of invoking exceptions.
  • Legal Precedent: The principle was established by the Indian Supreme Court in response to the Bhopal gas tragedy, ensuring greater accountability and justice.
  • Implications: Absolute liability imposes a higher standard on those responsible for hazardous activities, ensuring that they bear the consequences of their actions without escape routes.

Illustrative Example

  • Scenario: Consider a chemical plant that negligently releases toxic chemicals into a nearby water source.
  • Under Strict Liability: Previously, the company might have escaped liability by citing exceptions or defenses.
  • Under Absolute Liability: With the absolute liability doctrine, the company would be held strictly accountable for the damages caused, regardless of any defenses they might try to raise.

Question for Concept of Absolute Liability
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What is the key difference between absolute liability and strict liability?
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Concept of Absolute Liability

  • Definition of Absolute Liability: Absolute liability is a legal concept that holds industries or businesses accountable for any harm or damage caused by their inherently dangerous activities, even if they have taken precautions to prevent such harm.

Key Characteristics of Absolute Liability

  • It applies to activities that are hazardous and have the potential to cause significant harm.
  • Industries engaged in such activities are responsible for any resulting damage, regardless of fault.
  • Commercial gain from hazardous activities triggers the liability.
  • Compensation must be paid to affected parties by the industry or enterprise.

Examples of Absolute Liability

  • In the case of a chemical plant that experiences a leak causing harm to nearby residents, the plant would be held absolutely liable for the damages, irrespective of precautions taken.
  • If a construction company's activities lead to a building collapse, resulting in injuries or fatalities, they would be obligated to compensate the victims, regardless of negligence.

Essential Elements of Absolute Liability

  • Dangerous Thing: Absolute liability comes into play when a hazardous object escapes from the owner's control, posing a threat of harm to individuals or property. Examples of such dangerous things include pools of water, electricity, gas, explosives, fumes, and rusty wires.
  • Escape: If a dangerous object escapes the defendant's control and causes harm to the plaintiff's property or injures individuals, absolute liability applies. For instance, in the case of Read vs Lyons and Co, where an employee was injured by a piece of machinery within the workplace, the defendant was held liable despite the accident occurring during the course of employment.
  • Non-Natural Use of Land: Collecting water for domestic purposes is considered natural, but accumulating large quantities, such as in a reservoir, constitutes non-natural use. In Rylands v. Fletcher, it was established that amassing water extensively qualifies as non-natural land use. The distinction lies in considering societal norms and what a reasonable person would do.
  • Mischief: To establish liability under absolute liability, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant engaged in non-natural land use, allowing a dangerous item to escape, resulting in harm. For example, in Charing Cross Electric Supply Co. vs Hydraulic Power Co, where the defendant's failure to maintain water pressure led to pipeline bursts and subsequent damages, the defendant was held accountable.

Understanding the Scope of Absolute Liability Rule

  • The concept of absolute liability is typically viewed as an exceptional case in the legal realm. It gained prominence post the tragic Oleum gas leak incident, leading to the enactment of The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991. 
  • This legislation aims to offer compensation to individuals affected by accidents involving hazardous substances or their handling. The primary goal of this act is to establish a public liability insurance fund, utilized for victim compensation.

Question for Concept of Absolute Liability
Try yourself:
Which of the following statements best describes the concept of absolute liability?
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FAQs on Concept of Absolute Liability - Civil Law for Judiciary Exams

1. What is the concept of Absolute Liability in legal terms?
Ans. Absolute Liability refers to the legal responsibility of a party for damages or injuries caused, regardless of fault or intent. This means that the party can be held liable even if they took all possible precautions to prevent the harm.
2. What are the essential elements of Absolute Liability that need to be proven in a legal case?
Ans. The essential elements of Absolute Liability include the occurrence of harm, the defendant's involvement in the activity that caused the harm, and the strict liability imposed on the defendant regardless of fault.
3. How does the scope of Absolute Liability rule differ from other forms of liability in legal cases?
Ans. The scope of Absolute Liability rule differs from other forms of liability, such as negligence or intentional torts, as it does not require proof of fault or intent on the part of the defendant. The focus is solely on the harm caused and the defendant's involvement in the activity.
4. In what situations is Absolute Liability most commonly applied in legal cases?
Ans. Absolute Liability is most commonly applied in cases involving hazardous activities, dangerous substances, or products with inherent risks. This ensures that those responsible for such activities are held accountable for any resulting harm.
5. How does the concept of Absolute Liability impact the burden of proof in legal cases?
Ans. The concept of Absolute Liability shifts the burden of proof from the plaintiff to the defendant, as the defendant is automatically held responsible for the harm caused. This simplifies the legal process and ensures that victims of harm are more easily compensated.
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