Landmark Decisions in the Law of Torts
- This article titled 'Landmark Decisions in Law of Torts' outlines the Landmark Decisions in the Law of Torts.
This article titled 'Landmark Decisions in Law of Torts' outlines the Landmark Decisions in the Law of Torts.
Landmark Decisions in Law of Torts
I. Jai Laxmi Salt Works Ltd. v. State of Gujarat
The facts of the case were such that the state of Gujarat constructed a 'bundh' to reclaim land involving a risk of change in the course of the water. This change in the water flow would inevitably lead to damage to nearby property.
The owner of Jai Laxmi Salt Works wrote to the government asking for a change in the location of the weirs so that the factory premises were not flooded. His request was not acceded to, and ultimately during a heavy downpour, the claimant's factory premises were inundated. The government got the damages privately assessed but did not pay them to the claimant.
The claimant had to approach the court of law then. The trial court dismissed the claims on the ground that the damages were a result of an 'Act of God'. The High Court was approached, which decided that since the suit was barred by limitation, the respondents won't be liable. When the case finally reached the apex court, it was decided in favour of the appellant.
The court had to decide on mainly:
- Limitation period: Whether the suit would be time-barred under Section 36 or Section 120 of the Limitation Act or not?
- Strict Liability: Would the complained act fall under the category of strict liability offences?
The court held that the construction of a bundh was not a non-natural duty and hence could not absolve the state from the duty of care it owes to the citizens. It held that tortious liability might either be caused by malfeasance, misfeasance or non-feasance or caused differently; what is important is the causation of the tort. The defendant was held guilty of breaching its public duty as the construction of bundh was a common law duty, and any injury suffered by a common man ought to be compensated, irrespective of who the accused party is.
Regarding the limitation period, the court held that under Article 36 of the Limitation Act, the period could be ascertained either from the date when the tort took place or from when the claim was filed and subsequently rejected. Hence, the appeal succeeded, with the court awarding Rs. 1,58,735 along with three interest brackets of 6%, 9% and 12% up to January 1993.
II. Union Carbide Corporation v. Union of India
In December 1984, at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, approximately 40 tons of the lethal gas 'methyl isocyanate' was leaked into the atmosphere. Due to high wind pressure, this gas reached the main city in no time, causing the immediate death of around 2660 people dead apart from injuring lakhs. Due to the havoc, this disaster unleashed on the living population, it is described as the 'Hiroshima of the Chemical Industry'.
The Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985 was immediately enacted, statutorily authorizing the Government of India to represent the victims exclusively. In December 1987, post three years of the disaster, the District Court ordered interim relief – a short-term help till the full case comes before trial. This went into an appeal to the High Court, which upheld the decision. The suit was finally heard by the Supreme Court.
- The major issue was whether or not a multinational corporation can be held liable for negligent acts of its subsidiary organizations.
- Secondly, the court also had to decide on the validity of the High Court order.
In the judgment, the Supreme Court held that according to the negligence aspect, there is a 'duty of care' on the multinational corporation; even in case of fault of its local subsidiary, to ensure care and prudence to know and prevent the emergence of hazards and danger. The Supreme Court hence ordered compensation of US Dollars 470 million to provide 'immediate and substantive relief' to the victims of the disaster.
This settlement was based on the assumption that 3000 people died and 52,000 were injured. This amount fell far short of the claimed $3.1 billion by the Union of India. Within two years, the court accepted that there were actually 4000 deaths and subsequently began to hear curative petitions. The court held that if the amount was not sufficient to compensate the victims, the Union of India was bound to provide for the shortfall.
III. Municipal Corporation of Delhi v. Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy & Ors.
In December 1997, a fire broke out in the Uphaar Cinema in Delhi wherein 59 theatregoers died and 103 were injured. Shortly after the interval, a transformer of the Delhi Vidyut Board caught fire. By the time the smoke reached the theatre, the electricity went off.
People tried to move out through the exit on the left side top corner of the balcony; the staircase outside the balcony exit was full of noxious fumes and the other exit was locked. Case for adequate compensation was filed against the cinema owners, DVB, which installed a defective generator in the basement of the theatre, MCD, Delhi Fire Force and the Licensing Authority.
The court had to majorly decide on the extent of liability of the different stakeholders: the cinema owners, the Delhi Vidyut Board, the Licensing Authority. It was a settled fact that the case was a clear case of negligence. Hence, the court had to rule on:
- Whether the actors involved in this case could be held equally liable or not?
- If not, then on what grounds would the difference in liability be adjudged, and compensation offered?
The High Court found the respondents guilty of negligence. The Delhi Vidyut Board was held liable for violating provisions of the Electricity Act by not maintaining the installed transformers, while the owner was held liable for violating many municipal bye-laws against the Cinematograph Act. The court, apart from declaring a compensation amount of Rs. 1 lakh, also ordered punitive damages of Rs. 2.5 crores.
The aggrieved appealed in the Supreme Court, and what followed was horrifying: the Court halved the compensation for the death cases, while also holding that the MCD and the Licensing Authority could not be made to pay compensation on the grounds merely that they could have performed their duties better or more efficiently. In March 2014, there was again a hearing on the appeal. A two-judge bench did uphold the conviction of the theatre owners but disagreed about the amount of the penalty.
Today, the theatre owners are free on bail, but the situation of the families of those who died has still not improved, either emotionally or financially.
IV. MC Mehta v. Union of India
In December 1985, large amounts of the dangerous oleum gas leaked from one of the 'caustic chlorine' units of Shriram Food and Fertilizer Industry. The chemical industry had been a cause of nuisance for a long time: all units were set up in a single complex, surrounded by a thickly populated area. A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed by MC Mehta calling for the immediate closure of the plant and its subsequent relocation.
- Whether or not Shriram Fertilizers could be held absolutely liable for the disaster?
- Could the industry be allowed to continue its operations?
In its judgment, the SC gave constitutional status to the 'right to a pollution-free environment'. That the industry did not fall under an 'authority' within Article 12, the court did not subject it to the test under Article 21.
Considering factors such as probabilities of the management's negligence, the resultant unemployment and the welfare of the population, the court allowed Shriram industries to continue functioning. But it also directed the Delhi Legal Aid and Advice Board to file cases on behalf of all those who claim to be affected by the gas leak and to ensure that they get the required compensation.
What is interesting to note is that this is the case that brought the concept of 'absolute liability' to Indian tort law. Using the principle laid down in the English case of Rylands v. Fletcher, the court held that 'a person whom for his own purpose brings onto his land, collects or keeps anything likely to do mischief must keep at his peril and if he fails to do so is prima facie liable for the damages which are the natural consequences for its escape'. Since in this case, Shriram Fertilizers were absolutely responsible for the damage caused due to the escape of the hazardous Oleum gas, the industry was held liable.
V. Bhim Singh v. State of J&K
This case dealt with the liability of the State in tort law, in other words, the case focussed on 'sovereign immunity'. The petitioner, an MLA in the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly, was illegally arrested by the police en route to the seat of the assembly. This was done to prevent him from attending the assembly session where his vote might have been significant.
He was also not presented before the Magistrate for a period of four days. He was hence deprived of his constitutional rights under Article 21 (right to life and liberty) and Article 22 (2) (detained person to be presented before the Magistrate within 24 hours). Since the police is an arm of the State, the question of liability was ultimately on the State.
- In which cases can the State be held liable for the tortious acts of its servants?
- Does the 'real responsibility fall on the executive machinery, or on the superiors in power?
In the writ petition filed under Article 32, the court held that the police officers behaved in a 'high-handed manner' and stated that the law condemns such authoritarian acts.
The court also said that there was a clear case of violation of constitutional rights by the Police, a servant of the State government; in turn making the State responsible. The court pointed out that 'the police officers who are the custodians of law and order should not become depredators of civil liberties and that their duty is to protect and not to abduct."
But it simultaneously also recognized the fact that the police officers were mere minions and the real 'responsibility laid elsewhere' in the upper rungs of the government.
Like in tort cases, monetary compensation of Rs. 50,000 was announced for the petitioner. This case hence, in a way weakened the doctrine of sovereign immunity by ensuring that both the State and the citizens are at the same level with respect to law enforcement. Therefore the principle of monetary compensation is applied in cases where both the State or its citizens are the wrongdoers.
VI. Donoghue v. Stevenson
The case is based on the Doctrine of Negligence and Neighbour principle and holds importance for the clarification of the concepts of the Law of torts.
The appellant in this case Mrs. Donoghue visited a restaurant with her friend and there she consumed the contents of a ginger beer bottle in a large amount. As the bottle was opaque it was not possible to foresee the contents. Inside the bottle, there was a decomposed snail that she consumed without realizing it.
The appellant suffered from shock and a serious case of gastroenteritis because of the consumption. The appellant filed an appeal to the House of Lords, and she claimed damages for the injuries sustained by her due to the negligence of the manufacturer.
- The main issue raised in this case was that -
"Whether the manufacturer had any responsibility towards the appellant in the Absence of any contractual relationship between the two?"
The judgment was delivered in favour of the appellant. The wider importance of the case is that it established the general principle of the duty of care concept in law.
Before this case, any legal action could be taken only when there is a prior contractual agreement between the parties. But that scenario changed in this case, the appellant was allowed to extract damages in the absence of any such contract, making the manufacturer liable for the injuries sustained as a result of the consumption of his product. In this case, Negligence was established as a tort. It was also decided that if the plaintiff has suffered any loss or injuries due to the negligence of the respondent towards the duty of care then legal action can be brought up against the respondent by the plaintiff. And respondent will be bound to pay for the damages as per the nature or extent of the injuries.
The second principle established under this was that manufacturers will be held liable for the injuries caused by their products. It was observed that the manufacturers have a duty of care toward the consumers who use their products. And thus manufacturers should take reasonable care and whoever will not take it will be held liable to serve defective products to the consumers which might be harmful to them.
The famous 'Neighbour Principle' was devised in this case. It is because of this principle that the appellant was provided compensation for the injuries she sustained, despite being a third party to the original contract. Under this principle, the boundaries of the tort of negligence were expanded beyond the tortfeasor and the immediate party. And the ambit was made so wide that it includes all those who can be affected by the negligence. Lord Atkin defined the term 'neighbour' in legal parlance as anyone who would be closely and directly affected by one's actions and proper care must be taken to avoid causing any injury or loss.
VII. Ashby v. White
The case is also famous as the name of the Aylesbury election case. The plaintiff in this case Mr. Ashby was denied his voting right in parliamentary elections and the right to vote was denied by the returning officer Mr. White. The right was not provided on the basis that Mr. Ashby is not a permanent resident. And that's why even when the candidate in whose favour he wanted to vote won the elections, Mr. Ashby claimed that his legal right to vote was infringed. This case sparked a national controversy as well as initiated a parliamentary debate. The defendant Mr. White claimed that there was no actual loss incurred by Mr. Ashby by not voting. But still, the plaintiff sought compensation for the violation of his legal right.
- The main issue involved in this case was that -
"Whether the plaintiff can seek compensation for the violation of his legal right without any actual damage caused?"
The Court passed the decree in favour of the plaintiff. The court applied the principle of 'injuria sine damnum', which means 'injury without damage' in this case. Injuria sine damnum implies that the law also recognizes legal injuries even if there are no actual damages. Due to any action, if there is any legal injury, that means if anyone's legal right is violated, then in such cases, the victim deserves the compensation even in those cases when there is no actual damage caused.
In the present when there was no actual harm caused still it was established that legal harm has been done, and even after the candidate for whom the plaintiff wanted to vote won the elections, it was established that plaintiff's legal right to vote had been violated when he was wrongfully denied from casting his vote. And the plaintiff will receive the compensation for same.
Chief Justice Holt said, "Any injury imports harm even if it does not cost the party one farthing. In the case of damage, not only pecuniary but also injury, the damage is imported if a person is hampered in his or her rights."
VIII. Gloucester Grammar School case
In this case, the defendant was a school teacher in the Gloucester Grammar School. Due to some reasons, the defendant left that school and started a new school. The defendant opened this new school nearby Gloucester Grammar School and the fee was kept at 12 pence to attract more students. The fee charged by his previous school was 40 pence. The defendant was very famous among students. Due to these reasons, many students left Gloucester and joined this new school. The Gloucester Grammar School suffered huge monetary damage because of all this. Hence, the owner of Gloucester Grammar School filed a suit against the defendant for the recovery of the financial loss he had incurred because of him. They alleged that defendant has opened this new school with a malicious motive to harm the Gloucester Grammar School. And plaintiff sought compensation for the damages on these grounds.
The main issues involved in the case were that,
"Does the plaintiff have the right to seek compensation for the financial losses incurred due to the opening of a competitive business in his vicinity?"
"Does the case fall under 'damnum sine injuria'?"
"Is the defendant actually liable?"
The Court held that the defendant is not liable to provide any type of compensation to the plaintiff for the damages caused and the Gloucester Grammar School had no cause against the defendant. In this particular case, even when the plaintiff suffered pecuniary losses, but still there was no injury over his legal rights.
Plaintiff contended that the defendant had the motive to cause harm to the plaintiff when he opened the new school with less fee and it was morally wrong. But legally, the defendant had done nothing wrong. Not all moral, social, and religious wrongs need to always be covered under legal wrongs. No tort was committed. The defendant had the right to pursue any profession and he did not injure the legal rights of anyone in doing the same. Similarly, the students had the liberty to choose which school they wanted to go to. The Court can not compel the defendant to close down his school and the court cannot provide any kind of compensation to the plaintiff. Because no civil wrong was committed in this case hence it falls under 'damnum sine injuria' meaning damages without injury or damages in which there is no infringement of any legal rights.
Also even after the financial damage, the plaintiff suffered no legal injury in this case. And hence it was decided that in this case, the defendant was not liable.
IX. Hall v. Brooklands auto racing club
In this case, the defendant was the owner of a car racing track. The track was oval and had a circumference of approximately two miles or more. The track also had a 100 feet wide long straight stretch which was called finishing straight. And this stretch was bound by cement carb on the outer side. The cement curb was 6 inches in height, beyond which was a strip of grass 4 feet 5 inches in width enclosed within an iron railing 4 feet 6 inches high. The spectators were allowed to watch the race from a safe distance behind the railings behind the cement curb. But often people prefer to watch the race either outside or nearby the railing. One day during the race, two cars were approaching the sharp bend to the left in speed. To win the competition, one of the cars touched the offside of another car at speed. And due to this, the other car was thrown in the air and landed on railings after crossing the curb. Because of this accident, a few spectators died and many others were injured. One of the injured spectators brought a suit of negligence against the owners of the racing track as they had invited people to watch the race under such unsafe conditions.
In this case, the main issues involved were -
"Were the owners of the racing track negligent in ensuring the safety of the spectators?"
"Can the defendants be held liable for the damage caused to the spectators due to the accident?"
The Court held that it is the responsibility of the defendants to make the track safe for the spectators from all foreseeable dangers. But they are not at all responsible for those dangers which can not be reasonably predicted or the dangers for which spectators have given consent, as it is innate like the activity.
In this case, the area for spectators was completely secured and safe but there were chances that they are likely to get in danger when going too close to the track, i.e. near the railings. Also, there has been no other accident of such nature before and it was not foreseeable. Therefore, the defendants were not liable because of the following two primary reasons:
First, the accident was not foreseeable.
Second, the spectators had given their implied consent to the dangers inherent to the nature of the activity while buying tickets.
X. Rylands v. Fletcher
In this case, Fletcher owned a mill for whose energy requirement; he constructed a water reservoir on his land. To get this work done, he hired independent contractors and engineers. There were old unused shafts under the site of the reservoir which the engineers didn’t notice and thus did not block them. Due to the negligence of the contractors, the shafts that led the way to Rylands land burst when water was filled in the reservoir. This caused huge damage and loss to Ryland as the water entered his coal mine. Thus, Ryland filed a suit against Fletcher.
When the matter reached trial court, the court exonerated the defendants on the ground that they were unaware of the abandoned mine shaft while constructing the reservoir. Hence it cannot be said that they were negligent.
The plaintiffs then filed an appeal and the Exchequer Chamber overruled the trial court's decree, imposing strict liability on the defendants. But the problem, in this case, was that it was not fitting into any existing torts to punish the defendants. There was no trespass as the flooding was not direct. Also, there was no nuisance because nothing offensive or annoying was done.
Finally, the matter reached the House of Lords when the defendants filed an appeal.
Issues raised in the case were,
- "Whether the defendants can be held liable for indirectly flooding the plaintiff's active mines, without actually knowing it?"
- "If the defendants are liable, then for which tort could they be prosecuted?"
The House of Lords affirmed the judgment of the Exchequer Chamber and the defendants were held liable. The court also established the doctrine of 'strict liability', under which the defendants were held liable.
XI. Vaughan v. Taff Vale Railway Company
In this case, the Plaintiff was the owner of a wood or plantation which was adjoining the embankment of the railway. On 14 March 1856, the plaintiff's woods were found burned and the fire was caused by the sparks produced by the defendant's locomotive engines when they were running at their normal speed. The same thing happened a few times earlier and the Company paid for the damages every time. The plaintiff again sought compensation for the burnt wood from the defendant and hence filed this suit. Defendant claimed he took all the necessary precautions that were practicable to prevent such accidents and to make locomotives safe. Like a cap had been put on its chimney, the ashpan had been secured and it was operated at the slowest pace. Even the railway banks were covered by inflammable grass. And the plaintiff's wood was also full of small dry branches that are combustible.
In this case, the main issue was that
"Can the defendant be held liable for negligence despite taking all the necessary precautions?"
In the first instance, the company was held liable for negligence. Because it was observed that losses suffered by the plaintiff were because of the fire which was caused by the sparks from locomotive engines. Defendants were not provided the defense that plaintiff had allowed his wood to become vulnerable to catching fire, by neglecting to clear away the dry grass and small branches.
But this decision was overruled and finally, it was held that because the statutory authority has authorized the defendant to carry out their operations. That's why they had done nothing against the statute to be held liable. Furthermore, all the necessary precautions were taken, therefore, the defendant cannot be held liable for negligence as the act was authorized by the statute.
XII. Kasturi Ralia Ram v. The State of Uttar Pradesh
In this case the plaintiff, Kasturi Ralia Ram was a partner in a firm of Amritsar that used to deal with jewellery. He had arrived in Meerut intending to sell some gold and silver. In Meerut, he was taken into custody by three police officers who suspected him of having possession of the stolen property. He was searched and taken to the Kotwali Police Station. Around 103 tolas 6 mashas and 1 ratti of gold and 2 maunds and 6 ½ seers of silver were confiscated from him. They were kept in the police malkhana. After some time Kasturi Lal was released on bail, and silver was returned to him but not the gold. After several requests and demands, police officers did not return his gold return. At last, he filed a suit in which he demanded either the recovery of gold or he must be paid an amount equal to the value of the gold. The respondent claimed that the head constable of the malkhana whose name was Mohammad Amir took the gold and ran away with it to Pakistan. Police tried to trace him but they were unsuccessful. And thus respondents claim that they are not at fault in this case.
In this case, the main issues involved were,
- "Can the police be held guilty of negligence for not taking proper care of Kasturi Ram's gold?"
- "Is the respondent liable to compensate Kasturi Ram for his loss due to the negligence of the public servants appointed by the State?"
- "Can the defense of discharging sovereign functions be given to the respondent against the charge of negligence?"
The Supreme Court of India held that the defendant was not liable to compensate the plaintiff. It granted the defense of functions discharged under sovereign power to the respondent. It was observed that the powers to arrest, search and seize property fall under the sovereign powers which are conferred to the specified officers by the statute. Because these powers fall under the category of sovereign powers that's why they provide immunity to the officers in question. The employees can claim this immunity under sovereign power in those cases too in which they have committed a negligent act during employment. The decision was based on the maxim 'rex non-potest peccare' which translates to 'the king can do no wrong'.
XIII. Dr. Ram Baj Singh v. Babulal
This case was between a medical practitioner and the defendant owning a brick grinding machine. Defendant's brick grinding machine was built in front of the consulting chamber of the medical practitioner. Plaintiff claimed that the brick grinding machines are producing dust because of which the pollution is spreading into the environment and resulting in inconvenience to the plaintiff and his patients. He also alleged that these machines installed by the defendants were installed without any license or permission from the Municipal Board. On the other hand, the defendant claimed that the bricks were moistened before putting into the machine and due to this reason there is no dust. And the machine is not producing any kind of noise and thus it was not a source and reason for any kind of public or private nuisance.
The main issue involved in this case was,
- "Was the defendant liable for nuisance?"
The Allahabad High Court held that the defendant was liable for nuisance. It laid down two important pillars of the nuisance.
First, Special damage in which the Court held that the dust was produced due to the crushing of the bricks and it was a public hazard. It was bound to cause injury to public health. The dust was in sufficient quantity and it was visible on the clothes of people visiting the chamber in the form of a thin red coating. Thus, the brick grinding machine was causing special damage to the plaintiff.
Second, Substantial injury, under which the Injury was considered substantial when it was assessed from the point of view of a reasonable person belonging to society. The susceptibilities of a hypersensitive person are not taken into consideration. In the present case, substantial injury has been caused to the plaintiff and his patients due to the dust produced by the machine.
As the above two requisites were fulfilled in the present case and any action that could reasonably cause injury, discomfort, or annoyance to a person can fall under private nuisance, the defendant was held liable on the charge of private nuisance.
 1994 (3) SCC 492
 1992 AIR 248
 5 JILS (2013-14) 201 Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Paternalism and Filicide by Shruti Rajagopalan
 Marc Galanter, 'Second M.K Nambyar Endowment Lecture 2014 on From Bhopal to Saha: The Elusive Promise of Effective Legal Remedy', 5 JILS (2013-14) 139
 MCD v. Assn. of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy and Ors. (2005) 9 SCC 586
 MC Mehta v Union of India (1987) 1 SCC 395
 Dn Sengar, 'Pil To Ensure That Institutions Behave Lawfully: Public Access To Environmental Justice In India', Journal Of The Indian Law Institute (2003) Vol. 45, No. 1
 Rylands v Fletcher (1865-66) L.R. 1 Ex. 265
 AIR 1986 SC 494
 S Lalitha, 'Compensation to Victims of Crime' (1990) 1 LW (JS) 5
 1932 UKHL 100, SC (HL) 31, AC 562, All ER Rep 1
 (1703) 92 ER 126, (1703) 2 Ld Raym 938, (1703) 1 Sm LC (13th Edn) 253
 (1410) Y.B. 11 hen. IV of 47
  1 KB 205
 (1866) LR 1 Exch 265, (1868) LR 3 HL 330
  Eng R 1160, (1858) 3 H & N 743, (1858) 157 ER 667
 1965 AIR 1039, 1965 SCR (1) 375
 AIR 1982 All 285