An incident which brought back the horrors of the Bhopal Gas tragedy, a disaster in which a large number of people, including both working people and the public, were affected just after one year of the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984 and which became a significant example of how the courts must deal with companies responsible for environmental disasters. We are talking about the Oleum gas leak case. The similarity of this MC Mehta Oleum gas leak case with the Bhopal Gas Tragedy was one of the greatest reasons for its awareness & significance.
In this article, we will discuss the case which has evolved the rule of absolute liability, its meaning, the felt need to replace the principle of strict liability with absolute liability, its facts, judgment and many more. So, let’s get started.
Oleum Gas leak case summary
In the area of Kirti Nagar, Shriram’s Food and Fertiliser factory, Delhi, comprising a population of around 2,00,000 people, was situated that produced products like hard technical oil & glycerin soaps. M.C. Mehta, a social activist lawyer, once filed before the Supreme Court a writ petition seeking an order for closure and relocation of the Shriram Caustic Chlorine and Sulphuric Acid Plant to a different area where there will be no threat or danger to the people’s health and security. Pending the disposal of the petition, the SC permitted the plant to restart its work.
Then, on December 4th & 6th of 1985, massive leakage of oleum gas occurred from a subsidiary of Delhi Cloth Mills at Delhi that is; one of the plants of Shriram Foods and Fertiliser Industries, leading to the death of one person and causing injuries to many others.
The explosion and leakage of the gas from the tank were due to the collapse of the structure on which it was mounted. No sooner when the case was brought before the Court, another leakage occurred due to oleum gas escaping from the joints of a pipe.
According to the petitioner's submission, a lawyer who practised in the Tis Hazari Courts also died due to oleum gas inhalation. The case was also trending because just within two days, another leakage occurred from a pipe’s joints, after which the compensation claims were filed for the people who had suffered damage by the Delhi Legal Aid & Advice Board and the Delhi Bar Association.
In this case, firstly, the Ryland v. Fletcher rule was applied. However, Justice Bhagwati elucidated that the rule of strict liability was 100 years old and was not enough to decide such cases. Hence, the SC went further and implemented the absolute liability rule.
Absolute liability meaning
The essentials of absolute liability include-
Dangerous Thing– According to this, the liability of escape of a thing from an individual’s land will arise only when the thing which is collected is a dangerous thing that is likely to cause damage or injury to other people in person or their property on its escape.
Escape– Anything that has caused damage or mischief should have escaped from the area under the defendant's control to come under absolute liability.
Non-natural use of land– Water collected on land for domestic purposes does not amount to non-natural use of land. Still, if one is storing it in large quantities like in a reservoir, as in Ryland vs Fletcher, it is a non-natural use of the land.
Mischief- To make the person liable here, the plaintiff firstly needs to show that the defendant had made non-natural use of land and escaped the dangerous thing he had on his land, causing injury.
Strict liability, too, has these essentials. However, absolute liability is strict liability, but with no exceptions.
Oleum gas leak case judgment
This case had great significance in environmental advocacy & in establishing the principle of absolute liability, stating that in the case of industries (herein referring to ‘Shriram’) engaged in inherently dangerous activities, the rule of absolute liability will be applied.
The MC Mehta Oleum gas leak case is one of the important cases of environmental advocacy. Before this MC Mehta vs Union of India case, the rule of Strict Liability laid down in Ryland v. Fletcher was applied. The benefit of this principle was that many industries could have escaped from the liability of such environmental disasters by invoking the exceptions or several defences like the Defence of an ‘Act of God' etc. Thus, in the Oleum Gas Leakage case, the principle of Strict Liability was replaced with Absolute Liability.