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Concept of Absolute Liability

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The concept of absolute liability has its origins in two significant industrial catastrophes: the Bhopal Gas Tragedy (Union Carbide Case) and the M.C. Mehta Case (Oleum Gas Leak Case). Absolute liability establishes that if an enterprise operates in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry that poses a potential threat to the safety of workers and residents in the surrounding areas, they are held absolutely liable for any harm that occurs as a result of its activities. 

Absolute liability is a form of no-fault liability, which means that fault or negligence need not be proven, and traditional defences do not apply.

Definition of Absolute Liability

Absolute liability holds that if an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry, and harm arises from its activities, the enterprise is absolutely liable for compensating the affected individuals. 

This means that the enterprise is held accountable for any harm caused, regardless of fault or negligence.

No-Fault Liability

Absolute liability operates as a no-fault liability system, which means that establishing fault or negligence is not required to hold the enterprise liable. This recognises the inherent risks associated with hazardous industries and ensures that victims receive compensation without the burden of proving fault.

Inapplicability of Traditional Defences

When absolute liability applies, traditional defences typically used in other forms of liability are not applicable. The aim is to ensure that the affected individuals receive compensation promptly and without the need to establish fault or negligence on the part of the enterprise. None of the eight common defences, such as contributory negligence or acts of third parties, are relevant in cases of absolute liability.

Purpose and Significance

The purpose of absolute liability is to impose a higher level of accountability on enterprises involved in hazardous industries. It seeks to ensure that the potential risks and dangers associated with such activities are appropriately managed and that compensation is provided to those affected by any harm caused.

Examples

Here are three examples illustrating the concept of absolute liability:

Bhopal Gas Tragedy (Union Carbide Case)

Scenario: Union Carbide Corporation operated a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. Due to a gas leak in 1984, a toxic cloud of methyl isocyanate gas engulfed the surrounding areas, resulting in one of the worst industrial disasters in history.

Application of Absolute Liability:

The enterprise, Union Carbide Corporation, was engaged in a hazardous industry that posed a potential threat to the safety of workers and residents in the vicinity. The gas leak caused significant harm to thousands of people, resulting in injuries, fatalities, and long-term health effects. As a result, Union Carbide Corporation was held absolutely liable for compensating the victims, regardless of fault or negligence.

M.C. Mehta Case (Oleum Gas Leak Case)

Scenario: In 1985, a gas leak occurred at the Shriram Foods and Fertilisers Industries plant in Delhi, India. The leak involved oleum gas, which caused harm to nearby residents and workers.

Application of Absolute Liability:

The enterprise, Shriram Foods and Fertilisers Industries was engaged in an inherently dangerous industry that posed a potential threat to the safety of individuals in the surrounding areas. The gas leak resulted in harm and injuries to the affected residents and workers. In this case, the principle of absolute liability was applied, making the enterprise absolutely liable for compensating the victims, regardless of fault or negligence.

Nuclear Power Plant Accidents

Scenario: Accidents or meltdowns at nuclear power plants can have severe consequences, causing harm to workers, nearby residents, and the environment.

Application of Absolute Liability:

Nuclear power plants operate in a hazardous industry with potential risks and dangers associated with their activities. In the event of an accident or meltdown, which can lead to significant harm and long-term consequences, the principle of absolute liability would be applicable. The operators of the nuclear power plant would be held absolutely liable for compensating the victims and mitigating the environmental damage caused by their activities.

Summary

Absolute liability arose in response to major industrial disasters and serves as a means of holding enterprises in hasardous industries accountable for the harm caused by their activities. It operates as a no-fault liability system, with the aim of providing compensation to affected individuals without the need to establish fault or negligence. By imposing absolute liability, the legal system emphasises the importance of ensuring safety and accountability in hazardous industries, ultimately aiming to protect the rights and well-being of workers and residents in surrounding areas.

Note: Access complete CLAT Legal Reasoning notes here.


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