Sometimes there are situations where people are held liable for some harm even though they are not at fault and do not have any intention to cause harm. Also known as “NO Fault Liability”, Strict Liability can be defined as the legal responsibility for damages, or injury, even if the person found strictly liable was not at fault or negligent. This is quite contrary to the general principle of negligence in torts where a person is held liable only when he or she is guilty.
The plaintiff can establish prima facie for strict liability by showing:
- Proof of injury
- Defendant’s actions or product caused the injury
- Defendant’s activities were hazardous
- Harm to physical property by the defendant
The main principle of Strict Liability has its origin in the very famous English case of Ryland V. Fletcher in 1868.
In this case A, a mill owner employed reputed independent contractors to construct a water reservoir for the purpose of his mill. During the construction, the contractors came across some old passages on A’s land. When the reservoir was filled with water, water gushed through the passage and flooded the mines of B. B then sued A. It was evident that the contractors were clearly at fault for the happenings. The court held that if a person possesses something on his property for his own benefit, it should not affect other people. Hence, A was liable on the ground of “Strict Liability” and had to compensate for the damage.
In this case, A was not negligent although the independent contractors were negligent, still under the rule of strict liability, A was held liable.
Rule of Strict Liability:
Under the rule of Strict Liability, the law makes a person pay compensation for damages to the victims even if he is not at fault and took all the necessary precautions. In other words, the defendant is liable even when the actions are done without any negligence or ill intention and must compensate the plaintiff. For commercial and other activities, this rule is important.
Types of Strict Liability:
In the field of torts, examples of strict liability include substances that have the potential to harm or injure other people. Things such as dangerous or hazardous substances, using explosives, making defective products, ownership of wild animals etc. are examples of Strict Liability.
Main categories of Strict Liability include:
- Keeping wild animals in one’s property – if a person is in possession of any wild animal that has the potential to harm other people, he or she will be liable if the animal causes any injury to another person.
- Hazardous substances – transporting chemicals, using explosives, keeping poisonous gasses or liquids are considered as Strict Liability if a person is injured.
- Product Liability – if a product is defective and if it causes harm to the customer, the manufacturer or the seller of the product will be held liable by the court under Strict Liability.
Essentials of Strict Liability :
There are three conditions needed to be satisfied to constitute a strict liability. They are –
- Dangerous Substances – Defendant will be held strictly liable if “dangerous substances escape from his premises. Explosives, poison, toxic gasses, electricity, etc. can be defined as dangerous substances.
- Escape: Another condition to make the defendant strictly liable is that the substance should escape from the premises and shouldn’t be within the reach of the defendant after its escape. For instance, a person has a poisonous plant on his premises, and it is reaching out to his neighbor’s land, in that case, the defendant cannot say that the plant is on his land and only the leaves are on his neighbor’s land. This will be regarded as escape and the defendant will be held liable if someone consumes those poisonous leaves and dies. In the case of Read v. Lyons and Co . it was held by the Court that the accident had occurred in the premises of the factory and there was no escape of anything from there that could have caused damage to a person.
- Non-natural use: there should be non-natural use of land to constitute strict liability. In the case of Rylands v. Fletcher , the water collected in the reservoir was a non-natural use of the land. Storage of water for domestic use is natural use. The storage of water for the energizing mill is a non-natural use of water and hence, the defendant was held liable in Ryland’s case.
Exceptions to rule of Strict Liability :
The exceptions to the rule of Strict Liability are –
- Plaintiff’s Own Fault – When the cause of damage is an act of the plaintiff itself, no compensation would be available to the plaintiff in that case and the defendant will not be held liable.
In the case of Ponting v Noakes, the plaintiff’s horse died after it entered the property of the defendant and ate some poisonous leaves. The Court held that the defendant was not to be held liable because it was a wrongful intrusion.
- Act of God or Vis Mjor – The term Act of God can be defined as an event that is beyond the control of human beings. When the escape is caused by natural causes without any human intervention, the defendant can use the act of God as a defense.
In the case of Nichols V. Marshland, the defendant had a few artificial lakes on his land. But extremely heavy rain caused the banks of the lakes to burst and four bridges belonging to the plaintiff were carried away by the water. In the Court It was held that the defendant was not liable since plaintiff’s bridges were swept away by an Act of God.
- Mutual benefit – when there is implied consent of the plaintiff to the presence of the source of damage or danger and there is no negligence on the part of the defendant, the defendant will not be held liable.
- Act of stranger – The rule does not apply when the cause of damage is an act of a stranger or third party. Here, it should be noted that the third party is neither the servant of the defendant nor he is having any control over that person.
For instance, in the case of Box v Jubb, where the reservoir of the defendant overflowed because a third party emptied his drain through the defendant’s reservoir, the Court held that the defendant wouldn’t be liable because a third party was responsible for the act.
- Statutory act – if any act done under the authorization of the government or corporation, then it acts as a defense to an action for tort. In Green v. Chelsea Co., the defendants were mandated by statute to ensure a continuous flow of water. However, a water pipe belonging to the company burst, thus flooding the plaintiff’s premises with water without any fault or negligence on the part of the defendants. The court held that the defendants were not liable as it was performing its statutory duty and did not practice any negligence on its part.
The rule of Strict Liability can be considered as an exception to the general principles of tort where a person is held liable only when he is at fault but the principles governing the rule of Strict Liability mentions that a person can be held liable even when he is not at fault or had no intentions of harm. Hence this is also known as NO fault liability.
- Torts: Cases and Context by Eric E Johnson
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