APPLICATION OF STRICT OR ABSOLUTE LIABILITY IN VIZAG GAS TRAGEDY

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This article has been written by Kashish Goyal, a student of Mody University of Science and Technology, Rajasthan.

The principle of Strict and Absolute liability has been applied in many landmark judgments by the Supreme Court.

As per the rule of strict liability, when any person is working under the premises with hazardous substances and if in case it escapes and causes damages, the liability for such causation rests upon such person. In fact, permissions allowing such activities often include this principle as a pre-condition. However, there are some exceptions to it being, Act of god, Plaintiff’s own fault, consent of the party etc. There are three essentials for the occurence of liability under this rule i.e. dangerous thing, Non – Natural Use of Land and Escape.  In reference to this rule, Rylands v Fletcher, case is the most discussed, Fletcher (plaintiff) leased several underground coal mines from land adjacent to that owned by Ryland’s (defendant). The defendant owned a mill and constructed a reservoir on their land, the reservoir was placed over a disused mine. Water from the reservoir filtered through to the disused mine shafts and then spread to a working mine owned by the claimant causing extensive damage. The defendants were held strictly liable for the damage caused by a non- natural use of land. The case became the ancestral source of the doctrine of STRICT LIABILITY for abnormally dangerous conditions and activities. Liability under Rylands v Fletcher is now regarded as a particular type of nuisance. It is a form of strict liability, in that the defendant may be liable in the absence of any negligent conduct on their part.

Concerning the Vizag gas tragedy, midst Nationwide Lockdown due to the outbreak covid-19 pandemic, Industry was partially shut down except the maintenance activities, which were being carried out in the plant as per the predetermined schedule. But on 7th of May, a gas named “styrene” leaked from the plant premises which was owned by the South Korean company LG Polymers India Pvt. Ltd in Gopalapatnam, Vizag. Due to this incident, 11 people were killed and over a 1000 people were sickened. Additionally, it also affected the flora and fauna in that particular area. In furtherance to this incident, on 8th May, an order was passed by NGT (National Green Tribunal) which imposed a penalty of Rs. 50 crore on LG Polymers to compensate the same with the District Magistrate. Several reports have been made to determine the cause of the incident. NGT affirmed that leakage of the gas was at mass level that affected the public environment and health and it clearly attracts the principle of strict liability

Further, the Rule of Absolute Liability is applied where any enterprise is engaged in any hazardous activity (as defined under the Public Liability Insurance Act 1991) and due to its operation if it harms the public in the vicinity of such operation, then the enterprise will be strictly and absolutely liable to those who are  affected. The principle of absolute liability does not require any cause for action.  In,  M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India, on 4th and 6th of December, 1985 in Shriram food and Fertilizers, there was severe leakage of oleum gas, causing an advocate working at Tis Hazari court to be dead alongwith severely affecting others. The main issue which was raised was whether these tragedies will follow the principle of strict liabilities or they will fall under the exceptions laid down in Ryland v. Fletcher. The issue was brought into the court through Public Interest litigation, and the Supreme Court promulgated a new principle that will ignore all the exceptions, The Rule of Absolute Liability, i.e. strict liability minus Exceptions. The court held that compensation shall be paid to all those who are affected by such act. Concerning, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy ,  one of the most devastating cases in history. On December 1982, the disaster was caused by the leakage of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) with other toxic gases from the plant owned by the Union Carbide India Ltd. This disaster resulted in the death of 3000 persons and along with severely injuring a large number of population. The Supreme Court had applied the same rule as in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, AIR 1987 i.e. The Rule of Absolute liability. The court justified the application herein as:

  • If any enterprise or any premises is permitted to carry any hazardous activity for private profits, then the law must presume that such permission is conditional. They have social responsibility to compensate those who are affected by the incident as they should absorb those losses as overhead expenses.
  • The enterprise has also discovered the resources against the hazards and dangers and to provide warning against potential hazards.

In one of the cases related to Environment and public Health, Vellore Citizen Welfare Forum v. Union of India, under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution, a PIL was so  filed by the forum against the massive discharge of effluent tanneries in Tamil Nadu. The tanneries discharge being the untreated effluent was allowed into the open land and agriculture fields, which was the main source of drinking water for the people. This resulted in sheer contamination of drinking water, followed by the shortage of drinking water for the people. The Court directed all the Tanneries to deposit a sum of Rs. 10,000 as fine in the office of Collector. The Court in this case also emphasized on the constitution of Green Benches in India dealing specifically with matters relating to environment protection and also for speedy and expeditious disposal of environmental cases.

It can be concluded that in the present circumstances, the rule of absolute liability shall also be invoked as the employees are subjected to work with Hazardous Substances in an extremely lethal environment. In past, the Supreme Court has also applied the Rule Of Absolute liability in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India,1987 case dealing with similar facts. Henceforth, it is the duty of employer to provide a healthy and safe environment to ensure workers’ well being and thereby ensuring stricter compliance to standards that were meant to safeguard the public at large.

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