Rule of strict liability

INTRODUCTION

The word tort derived from the Latin term ‘tortum’,which means ‘to twist’. It includes that conduct which is not straight or lawful , but, on the other hand, twisted, crooked or unlawful. It is equivalent to the English term ‘wrong’.

Tort is a civil wrong which is redressible by an action for unliquidated damages and which is other than a mere breach of contract or breach of trust.

Three essential elements which constitute a tort are,

1. A Wrongful act or omission, and

2. Duty imposed by the law.

3. The act must give rise to legal or actual damage, and

It should be of such a nature that it should give rise to a legal remedy in the form of an action

for damages.

There are three types of torts depending upon the tortfeasor’s or wrongdoer’s intent and they are:

  • Intentional Tort – If the tortfeasor (wrongdoer) acted with intent to cause the damage or harm.
  • Negligence – If the tortfeasor did not act intentionally but nonetheless failed to act in a way a rational person would have acted.
  • Strict Liability – If the tortfeasor is engaged in certain activities and someone is injured or killed, the tortfeasor is held liable no matter how cautious or incautious he or she has been.

STRICT LIABILITY

Strict Liability is a type of tort in which an individual or corporation is held liable for their actions even though the consequences were unintended. The term Strict Liability refers to the imposition of liability on an individual or entity for losses and damages without having the need to prove negligence or mistake. In most civil cases, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant is responsible due to negligence or fault. In Strict Liability, however, the plaintiff merely has to show that the tort happened and that the defendant was to blame. Only certain acts that the law deems to be naturally hazardous are subject to liability. Strict Liability is also called  ‘No fault liability’. It’s because of the immateriality of intention and lack of care. Many who engage in harmful or unsafe activities are often subject to strict liability.

 The principle of strict liability evolved in the case of Rylands v Fletcher,if we see  the facts of the case, the defendant owned a mill for which he built a water reservoir on his property with the assistance of professional and effective independent contractors and engineers to meet the mill’s energy needs. When the reservoir was completed and filled with water, all of the water flowed to the plaintiff’s coal mines on the adjacent property through the unblocked old shafts and passages and destroyed them completely. This occurred as a result of the engineers’ carelessness. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the defendant, and the court found the defendant liable under the strict liability clause. The court ruled that a person is liable for any harm or loss caused to others as a result of his or her actions, regardless of negligence, mens rea, or any other form of remote liability. In simple terms, the rule of Rylands v. Fletcher states that if a person holds a toxic substance on his or her property and it escapes and causes harm to nearby people despite the person’s proper care, then person who purchased the substance is responsible for the damages. The principle of strict liability was created as a result of this judicial decision.

There are essential conditions which are required to be fulfilled to categorize a liability under the head of strict liability.

ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF STRICT LIABILITY

There are certain elements which are essential for applicability of strict liability, they are;

  1. Dangerous Substance

For the rule of strict liability to be applicable, the substance which escapes must be dangerous and hazardous in nature. The substance which escapes should cause some mischief or damage to the other people or their property. Dangerous items include large bodies of water, gas, electricity, vibrations, yew trees, waste, bombs, noxious gases, and so on.

For example:

In Rylands v. Fletcher case, there was escape of large body of water from the mill of the defendant to the mines of the plaintiff which caused damage to his property.

In Crowhurst v. Amersham Burial Board case, There was a poisonous tree on the defendant’s land. Eventually the branches of the tree grew and reached the property of the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s horse ate the leaves of the tree and died.

 Therefore, in the above mentioned cases , there was an escape of hazardous substance from the premises of the defendant which caused damage to the plaintiff.

  • Escape

The second essential element for applicability of strict liability is Escape. Escape means that the dangerous substance which has caused damage or harm must ‘escape’ from the premises and out of control of the defendant.

For instance, if we take the case of Crowhurst v. Amersham Burial Board, The branches of the poisonous tree escaped from the land of the defendant and caused death of the plaintiff’s horse.

In the case of Read v. Lyons and Co, The plaintiff worked as an employee in the defendant’s shell manufacturing company. When she was working in the premises of the company, a shell exploded and injured the plaintiff. She filed suit against the defendant). But the court held that strict liability is not applicable here as the explosion took place within the company’s premises, and the escape of a dangerous thing is missing here.

  • Non-natural use of land

For the rule to apply, there must be non-natural use of the land by the defendant.

The word ‘non-natural’ means that there should be some special kind of use of the land which causes increased damages to the other people or their property. If there is ordinary use of land then the defendant will not be held liable.

In Rylands v. Fletcher case, the water collected in the reservoir in the mill of the defendant is the non natural use of the land as he collected water for energizing a mill but  if there is storage of water for domestic use then it will considered as natural use of land.

if we see the case of Crowhurst v. Amersham Burial Board, if the defendant grew tree in his land then it must have been considered as natural use of the land but the tree he grew was poisonous in nature so it will be considered as non-natural use of the land.

Similarly, if we see the case of Sochaki v. Sas, it was considered that the use of the fire place in the house is the natural use of the land. if the fire escapes to the adjoining property then the defendant will not be held liable because it is the natural use of the land.

From the above cases, we can clearly understand the difference between natural use and non-natural use of the land. If the conflict arises between Plaintiff and defendant regarding natural use of the land, then the defendant will not be held liable by the court.

  1. Mischief

Another most important element to apply this rule is that there much some mischief/damage caused to the plaintiff due to the defendant. The plaintiff has to prove that the defendant made non-natural use of his land and the escape of the dangerous/hazardous substance caused mischief/damage to him. The plaintiff is required to show that the resultant damages are because of the unnatural use of the land by the defendant.

In Charing Cross Electric Supply Co. vs. Hydraulic Power Co., The defendants’ responsibility was to provide water for industrial works, but they were unable to keep their mains charged with the minimum necessary pressure, resulting in the pipe line bursting at four separate locations, causing severe harm to the plaintiff, as shown by the plaintiff’s testimony. Despite their faults, the defendants were found responsible.

EXCEPTIONS/DEFENECES TO THE RULE OF STRICT LIABILITY

The rule of strict liability does not apply in the following cases:

  1. PLAINTIFF’S OWN FAULT: If any damage/mischief is caused to the plaintiff because of his/her own fault then the plaintiff cannot claim damages under the rule of strict liability.

In the case of Ponting v Noakes, the plaintiff’s horse entered the defendant’s property and ate leaves of poisonous tree in his property. So, here the defendant was not held strictly liable for the loss of the plaintiff as it was a fault on part of the plaintiff itself as he should have taken care of his cattle.

  1. ACT OF GOD: The phrase “act of God” can be defined as an event which is beyond the control of any human agency. Such acts happen exclusively due to natural reasons and cannot be prevented even while exercising caution and foresight. This term basically signifies that a person can take a defense of act of god if something escapes  and causes damages to the plaintiff which is out of his/her control. Some events which can be considered as acts of god are tornadoes, earthquakes, extraordinary high tides, violent winds, and floods.

In case of Nichols vs. Marsland, the defendant made a artificial lake by disturbing the natural stream and flow of water on his land. Exceptional heavy rain made the artificial lakes and the waterways to be flooded and caused damages to the adjoining land.The judgement was that the defendant is not liable because it was an act of god which could not have been anticipated by a human being

  • ACT OF STRANGER:  The defendant cannot be held liable for the damages caused due to the acts of the stranger or any third party over whom the defendant does not have any control or power. A stranger or third party is a person who does not have any contract with the defendant nor should the defendant have any control over the person. One thing is important to claim defense under this exception is that the defendant must have taken reasonable care if the acts of the third party can be foreseen or anticipated.

For instance, in Rickards vs. Lothiancase, the strangers blocked the  pipes of the wash basin and opened the tap which was on the defendant’s premises. Because of the act of the strangers, the water flooded and damaged the goods of the plaintiff. Here in this case, it was announced that the defendant was not liable for the damages because it was an act by the strangers and also it cannot be anticipated by the defendant.

  • COMMON BENEFIT OF PLAINTIFF AND DEFENDANT :  If there is an act or escape of dangerous substance done for the common benefit of both the plaintiff and the defendant ,and if that act causes damages o the plaintiff then the defendant cannot be held liable solely for the damages, provided there was no negligence on the part of the defendant.

In case of Box v. Jubb, The defendant’s reservoir overflowed partly as a result of his actions and partly as a result of the actions of neighboring reservoir owners, causing damage to the plaintiff’s house, who lived in the same multi-story building as the defendant. The defendant was found not responsible because the water reservoirs were built for the good of all tenants of the multi-story house including the plaintiff and the defendant.

  • CONSENT OF THE PLAINTIFF: If any dangerous substance is brought in the land of the defendant with the consent of the plaintiff and it escapes and causes damage to the plaintiff then the defendant will not be liable as the plaintiff consented himself for the substance. The consent can be expressed or implied and also there should not be any negligence on part of the defendant to claim defense under this exception. This exception follows the principle of “ Volenti Non Fit Injuria” which means  to a willing person, no injury is done.

In case of Peters vs. Prince of Wales Theatre Ltd. Birmingham, The plaintiff leased a shop on the defendant’s property despite the fact that the defendant already had a theatre and rehearsal room on the same property. In the event of a fire, the theatre had a water storage mechanism to put out the flames. Unfortunately, due to excessive frost, the water container exploded, and the water spilled into the plaintiff’s store, causing damage to his products. Here the court held that The plaintiff had impliedly consented to the existence of the hazards of a water storage tank located right next to his shop by taking the defendant’s premises on rent, so the court found the defendant not responsible.

  • DAMAGE CAUSED DUE TO THE NATURAL USE OF THE LAND :  The rule of strict liability does not apply when objects are present on a person’s land in their natural state or occur on the land, even though they are harmful. The defendant is liable to prove that there is natural use of the land and he will be exempted from this rule.

In case of Giles vs. Walker, Thistle plants grew spontaneously on the defendant’s property. The defendant failed to control the spread of this noxious vegetation, which was encroaching on the plaintiff’s property and causing him irritation and harm. The defendant, on the other hand, was able to show that plant cultivation is a natural use of land, and thus he won the case against the plaintiff.

  • STATUTORY AUTHORITY : If an act carried out under the authority of a law or statute, such as the government of a nation or a state government, causes harm to an individual then it will be considered as a defense for this rule of strict liability.

In case of Green vs. Chelsea Waterworks Co, A statutory order required the defendant corporation to maintain a consistent water supply. Without the defendant’s negligence, a main belonging to the corporation burst flooding the plaintiff’s premises. It was decided that the corporation would not be held liable because it was performing a statutory duty.

CONCLUSION

The Rule of Strict liability or No fault Liability paved the way for a new way of determining cases involving the responsibility of the owner. The rule of strict liability states that a person will be liable for his/her acts even though he/she is not at fault. There was a need for a law that would improve the owner’s responsibility to take care. Since the environment is changing so quickly and conflicts over duty of care are becoming more common, a law was needed to address these issues. In India, the strict liability rule was not followed, but it was later changed to Absolute liability, which is now used.

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