Recently, while the world was fighting the coronavirus, Vizag, a port city in Andhra Pradesh, was witness to an industrial accident. There was a gas leak at the LG Polymers chemical plant in the outskirts of the city. It resulted in the death of twelve people and 32 animals. It drew comparisons with the infamous Bhopal gas tragedy, an accident which had much graver consequences on the lives of those affected, with the number of deaths being in the thousands. Both the incidents were disasters involving leakage of poisonous gas (styrene in Vizag and methyl isocyanate in Bhopal) and both the accidents endangered the lives of people. Industrial accidents such as these, raise questions about the liability of the industries for these accidents.
Strict liability and absolute liability
Indian courts have two established rules for determining the liability of the owners of the industries in such cases: strict liability and absolute liability. The concept of strict liability took birth in the landmark 1868 Rylands v Fletcher case. This rule states “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.” The House of Lords, in its judgment in an appeal, in this case, added a requirement that the use of land must be unnatural, unusual or inappropriate, for this rule to apply.
The absolute liability was devised in MC Mehta v Union of India (Oleum gas leak case) by the Supreme Court of India. This rule does not provide any scope for defence for hazardous industries. When this rule is applied, the owners of the industry are held liable regardless of whether they had any role in the incident in question. The Constitution Bench observed that enterprises that are engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry owe a duty to the public to ensure that the dangerous activity is conducted with the highest standards of safety. The enterprise would be liable for any harm resulting from the activity regardless of the fact that it had taken reasonable care to prevent any accident.
The gas leak in Vizag seems to call for the rule of absolute liability to be applied in determining the liability of LG Polymers as they were engaged in a hazardous and inherently dangerous industry. Section 3 of the Public Liability Insurance Act makes it clear that the claimant, in any claim for relief in such cases, need not prove that the death, injury damage was due to any wrongful act, neglect, or fault of any person.
A similar provision has been made in Section 17 of the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010. Also, there are similarities between this incident and the Oleum gas leak incident. Both of them involved leakage of poisonous gas from the and both the incidents resulted in the death of at least one person. Thus, it only makes sense that the rule devised in the Oleum gas leak case be applied here too.
The National Green Tribunal which took Suo moto cognisance of the Vizag incident initially sought to apply the strict liability rule but then decided that the situation demanded the application of absolute liability rule.
Indian Penal Code, 1860
Accidents such as these are usually the result of the negligent conduct of the enterprise. According to a report by a Joint Monitoring Committee constituted by the NGT, there was clear cut negligence and gross human failure on the part of the company. Section 284 of the IPC deals with negligent conduct with respect to poisonous substances. The punishment prescribed for such conduct is imprisonment for six months, or a fine of a thousand rupees, or both.
When people die as a result of such accidents, the enterprise becomes liable for culpable homicide, not amounting to murder. Section 304 of the IPC prescribes the punishment for this: imprisonment for a term which may extend to ten years, or with fine, or both. Section 304A of the IPC deals with causing death by negligence. It prescribes a punishment of imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or a fine, or both.
Environment Protection Act, 1986
Section 7 of Environment Protection Act states “No person carrying on any industry, operation or process shall discharge or emit or permit to be discharged or emitted any environmental pollutant in excess of such standards as may be prescribed.”
Punishment for violation of Section 7 is provided in Section 15 of the Act. Violation may be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine which may extend to one lakh rupees, or with both and if the violation continues, with fine which may extend to five thousand rupees for every day for which the violation continues after the first conviction. If the violation continues beyond a period of one year after the first conviction, the offender may be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years.
National Green Tribunal Act, 2010
Since chemical accidents result in harm to the environment, the National Green Tribunal derives the power to hear such cases from Section 14 of the National Green Tribunal Act 2010.
Section 15 of the Act makes provision for the NGT to provide, by order, compensation to victims of chemical accidents. It also provides that this compensation shall be in addition to the compensation payable under the Public Insurance Liability Act, 1991. Section 17 of the Act provides that the person responsible for the death, or injury any person other than a workman because of an accident, shall be liable to pay such compensation for it as may be determined by the Tribunal.
Public Insurance Liability Act, 1991
Section 3 of this Act, similar to Section 17 of the NGT Act, provides that the owner of any hazardous substance shall be liable to provide relief in case of death, injury, or damage to property resulting from an accident.
Section 4 of the Act makes it mandatory for owners to take out insurance policies before handling any hazardous substance so that he is insured against liability to give relief under Section 3 of the Act.
Section 8 of the Act makes it clear that the relief or compensation provided under this legislation is in addition to that under any other law in force at the time.
India has had its fair share of chemical accidents that resulted in death, from the Bhopal gas tragedy to the oleum gas leak case and the Vizag accident. While it is highly challenging to ensure that no such accident occurs in the future, strict enforcement of safety rules and regulations will surely go a long way in reducing the number of such incidents. The law providing compensation for the victims of such accidents has also evolved. At first, the State was ill-equipped to handle such situations, but with each passing disaster, the lawmakers seem to realise that loopholes in the existing laws need to be covered. India still has a long way to go in this aspect, and one can only hope for the best in the future.
 Rylands v Fletcher, (1868) LR 3 HL 330.
 MC Mehta vs Union of India, 1987, SCC (1) 395.
 Indian Penal Code, 1860
 Environment Protection Act, 1986
 National Green Tribunal Act, 2010
 Public Insurance Liability Act, 1991