Five Landmark Decisions in Indian Tort Law | Explained

By | February 23, 2019
Landmark Decisions in Indian Tort Law

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This article outlines the Five Landmark Decisions in Indian Tort Law. Cases which has been discussed are Jai Laxmi Salt Works Ltd. v. State of Gujarat, Union Carbide Corporation v. Union of India, MC Mehta v. Union of India, Municipal Corporation of Delhi v. Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy & Ors., and Bhim Singh v State of J & K. 

1. Jai Laxmi Salt Works Ltd. v. State of Gujarat[1]

Facts

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 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.

Legal History

The claimant had to then approach the court of law. The trial court dismissed the claims of the ground that the damages were a result of ‘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 favor of the appellant.

Issues

The court had to mainly decide on:

  1. Limitation period: Whether the suit would be time-barred under Section 36 or Section 120 of the Limitation Act or not?
  2. Strict Liability: Would the complained act fall under the category of strict liability offenses?

Decision

The court held that construction of a bundh was not a non-natural duty and hence cannot 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 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.

2. Union Carbide Corporation v. Union of India[2]

Facts

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.[3] Due to the havoc, this disaster unleashed on the living population, it is described as the ‘Hiroshima of the Chemical Industry’.

Legal History

The Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985 was immediately enacted, statutorily authorizing the Government of India to exclusively represent the victims. 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 in appeal to the High Court, who upheld the decision. The suit was finally heard by the Supreme Court.[4]

Issue

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.

Decision

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.

3. Municipal Corporation of Delhi v. Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy & Ors.[5]

Facts

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 that installed a defective generator in the basement of the theatre, MCD, Delhi Fire Force and the Licensing Authority.

Issue

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:

  1. Whether the actors involved in this case could be held equally liable or not?
  2. If not, then on what grounds would the difference in liability be adjudged, and compensation offered?

Decision

The High Court found the respondents guilty of negligence. The Delhi Vidyut Board was held liable of 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.

4. MC Mehta v. Union of India[6]

Facts

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.[7] A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed by MC Mehta calling for the immediate closure of the plant and its subsequent relocation.

Issues

  1. Whether or not Shriram Fertilizers could be held absolutely liable for the disaster?
  2. Could the industry be allowed to continue its operations?

Decision

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.[8]

What is interesting to note is that this is the case that brought in 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’.[9] Since in this case, Shriram Fertilizers were absolutely responsible for the damage caused due to escape of the hazardous Oleum gas, the industry was held liable.

5. Bhim Singh v. State of J & K[10]

Facts

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 police is an arm of the State, the question of liability was ultimately on the State.

Issues

  1. In which cases can the State be held liable for tortious acts of its servants?
  2. Does the ‘real responsibility fall on the executive machinery, or on the superiors in power?

Decision

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.[11] 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.


By – Tanishka Goswami

National Law University, Delhi


[1] 1994 (3) SCC 492

[2] 1992 AIR 248

[3] 5 JILS (2013-14) 201 Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Paternalism and Filicide by Shruti Rajagopalan

[4] 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

[5] MCD v. Assn. of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy and Ors. (2005) 9 SCC 586

[6] MC Mehta v Union of India (1987) 1 SCC 395

[7] Environmental Law and Policy: environmental activism, Law Teacher, Available Here

[8] 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

[9] Rylands v Fletcher (1865-66) L.R. 1 Ex. 265

[10] AIR 1986 SC 494

[11] S Lalitha, ‘Compensation to Victims of Crime’ (1990) 1 LW (JS) 5


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