Home Law Visakhapatnam gas leak- A case of absolute liability?

Visakhapatnam gas leak- A case of absolute liability?

The concept of strict liability and absolute liability comes in the equation because they both deal with the escape of a dangerous substance. The article provides a detailed perspective on both these concepts and then argues whether strict or absolute liability should be imposed on the leak of styrene gas.

During the early morning of May the 7th, in a peaceful village called R. R. Venkatapuram near Gopalapatnam on the outskirts of Visakhapatnam, took place one of the biggest industrial disasters of India. A plant of styrene monomer, a highly dangerous compound used to manufacture engineering plastics, got leaked which led to around a dozen deaths and got more than a thousand people injured upon contact with the gas. The Andhra Pradesh government, in response,  announced an ex gratia of ₹1 cr each for kin of the deceased as well as funds for the injured, allocating a budget of ₹30 crores for the compensation of all those affected.

The National Green Tribunal took suo motu cognizance of the matter and formed a committee headed by a retired judge of the Andhra Pradesh High Court to inspect the site and determine the cause of the accident and steps to compensate the victims. It asked LG Polymers (the owner of the plant) to deposit 50 crores with the collector. The concept of strict liability and absolute liability comes in the equation because they both deal with the escape of a dangerous substance. The article provides a detailed perspective on both these concepts and then argues whether strict or absolute liability should be imposed on the leak of styrene gas

Strict Liability

The rule of Strict Liability originates from the landmark English case of Rylands vs Fletcher (1868). In this case, Rylands employed some contractors to build a reservoir, where Rylands had no active role in its construction. The contractors discovered a series of old coal shafts improperly filled with debris but still continued the work. Eventually, the reservoir burst and flooded a neighboring land belonging to Fletcher. The matter went to court, and Rylands defended himself by claiming that he had no role to play in the construction hence he cannot attract liability. The court, despite his non-involvement, held Rylands liable and laid down 3 essential characteristics of strict liability viz.

  • Non-natural use of land must have taken place.
  • Escape of a dangerous thing from that land on which it was kept must have taken place.
  • The dangerous thing must have caused mischief.

There are certain exceptions to this law, which include the plaintiff’s fault, the act of God, acts of the third party, consent of the plaintiff, common benefit, and statutory authority. Being a part of tort law (loosely translates into judge-made law), the definition of strict liability is not contained in any statute.

Absolute Liability

The earlier principle of strict liability soon became outdated in view of the rapid technological changes taking place. There now exist certain industries that have the potential for such a large scale of damage that there was a need for introducing a deterrent that sufficiently prevented such industries from causing damage. There felt a need to bring up a law which encapsulates the essentials of strict liability, albeit with no exceptions to it. This law was referred to as Absolute Liability and evolved in the case of MC Mehta vs Union of India (1987). In this case, the Supreme Court dealt with a PIL claiming the leak of Oleum gas from a unit of Sriram Foods in the city of Delhi. The court here declared that the Strict Liability rule is obsolete and developed the rule of Absolute Liability to ensure that profit-making enterprises do not escape liability on the basis of the exceptions provided in strict liability.

Where in Strict Liability, the nature of damages to be paid was compensatory, in Absolute Liability, it became exemplary in nature. Absolute Liability was also later applied in the Bhopal Gas tragedy case in 1991, and Indian  Council for Enviro-legal Action case in 1996. Absolute Liability can also have criminal elements in cases where the accused is found guilty of intention to cause a dangerous act.

Visakhapatnam Gas Leak Tragedy: A case analysis

People carry a woman affected by a chemical gas leak in Vishakhapatnam, India, Thursday, May 7, 2020. Chemical gas leaked from an industrial plant in southern India early Thursday, leaving people struggling to breathe and collapsing in the streets as they tried to flee. Administrator Vinay Chand said several people fainted on the road and were rushed to a hospital. (AP Photo)

The National Green Tribunal order has directed the application of Strict Liability for the damages to the people and the environment. This has been criticized by many legal experts as the gas leak is almost equivalent to the Bhopal gas tragedy, which was a sure shot case of absolute liability. Here is construction for an absolute liability case to be imposed

First, it is absolutely clear that the industry was a profit-making venture, which assumes importance in absolute liability cases. Secondly, In the Bhopal Gas leak case, the Supreme Court devised Bhopal Gas Leak (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985 which contained the provision which mandated that if a certain enterprise is permitted to carry a profitable activity, then the law must presume that such permission is contingent upon the fact that the cost of an accident resulting from the activities of an enterprise must be absorbed by the enterprise itself. It also mandates that such enterprises must have the capital to discover and guard against any such hazards.

Comparing it to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, we find plenty of similarities. The leak of Styrene is as hazardous to people and the environment, just like Methyl Isocynite in Bhopal’s case. Both accidents caused considerable damage to their surroundings, and have a long-lasting impact. And lastly, both these industries in question are run by multinational corporations in pursuit of profit and with disregard for precautionary practices.

So far, it feels that the government has learned nothing from the experience of the horrific Bhopal Gas tragedy. It shows that the government values the growth in industrial activity and giving companies less legal hassles rather than providing justice for the people affected. This is a clear capitalist shift from the socialist ideologies our nation and constitution was founded upon. In imposing strict liability for the gas leak, the NGT has invariably opened up loopholes for LG Polymers to abdicate their responsibility on the defense that they did not have a substantial role in the creation of the disaster and hence get away from paying exemplary compensations.

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