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Explained: Strict liability rule that NGT wants to apply in Vizag gas leak case

The rule of strict liability, which has been applied around the world in both civil and criminal law, first evolved in the 1868 British case Rylands vs Fletcher.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: May 12, 2020 1:48:04 pm
Vishakhapatnam gas leak, NGT fine on LG polymers, LG polymers, Vishakhapatnam gas leakage, vizag gas leak, express explained A crowd gathers outside the LG Polymers plant from where chemical gas leaked in Vishakhapatnam (AP/File)

On Friday, a day after the gas leak incident at a chemical factory in Andhra Pradesh’s Visakhapatnam that claimed 11 lives, the National Green Tribunal slapped an interim penalty of Rs 50 crore on LG Polymers India, and sought response from the Centre and others for the “damage to life, public health and environment”.

The NGT order said: “Leakage of hazardous gas at such a scale adversely affecting public health and environment, clearly attracts the principle of ‘Strict Liability’ against the enterprise engaged in hazardous or inherently dangerous industry.”

The rule of strict liability, which has been applied around the world in both civil and criminal law, first evolved in the 1868 British case Rylands vs Fletcher.


The rule in Rylands vs Fletcher

John Rylands, a textile entrepreneur, was looking to supply water for his mill located in England’s coal-rich Lancashire area. For this, he hired independent contractors to build a reservoir on his land in 1860, and himself played no role in its construction.

During construction, engineers discovered loosely filled shafts of an abandoned coal mine, but did not block them. The shafts and underground passageways were connected to a neighbouring mine, owned by Thomas Fletcher.

In December 1860, the reservoir burst soon after it was filled, and the water flooded Fletcher’s mine causing him damage worth 937 pounds (approximately worth GBP 88,000 in present-day money).

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When Fletcher first filed a case against Rylands for negligence, a trial court delivered its verdict in Rylands’ favour. After the lower court order, Fletcher appealed to the Court of Exchequer Chamber, where a six-judge bench overturned the previous decision, applying what came to be known as the strict liability rule.

The famed common law jurist, Justice Blackburn, who was among the judges who heard the case, defined the strict liability principle as follows: “the person who, for purposes of his own, 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, he is prima facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape.”

When Rylands appealed to the House of Lords in 1868, a two-judge bench agreed with Blackburn’s view, but added a requirement that the use of land should also be non-natural, unusual, or inappropriate.

A National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) soldier is fitted with gear before he proceeds to the area from where chemical gas leaked in Vishakhapatnam (AP/File)

Application of the rule, and further development in India

The strict liability rule today finds application in both criminal and civil law. According to the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School, “In both tort and criminal law, strict liability exists when a defendant is liable for committing an action, regardless of what his/her intent or mental state was when committing the action.”

Since it first evolved in the 19th century, several countries further developed the doctrine. Many jurists criticised the wide variety of exceptions that allowed defendants to escape accruing strict liability. The defences against the rule include among others– consent, common benefit, an act of a stranger, an act of God, and contributory negligence.

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In India, legal opinion turned in favour of adopting a more stringent rule, especially after the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984.


In 1986, the Supreme Court in MC Mehta vs Union (known as the Oleum gas leak case) evolved its own rule of ‘absolute liability’– providing no exceptions for hazardous industries and holding them absolutely liable.

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The Constitution Bench, led by then Chief Justice PN Bhagwati, observed, “We in India cannot hold our hands back, and I venture to evolve a new principle of liability which English courts have not done. We have to develop our own law and if we find that it is necessary to construct a new principle of liability to deal with an unusual situation which has arisen and which is likely to arise in future on account of hazardous or inherently dangerous industries which are concomitant to an industrial economy, there is no reason why we should hesitate to evolve such principle of liability merely because it has not been so done in England.”

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First published on: 11-05-2020 at 02:47:46 pm
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