Strict, Absolute and Vicarious Liability in Criminal Law

Strict Liability

The principle of strict liability evolved in the case of Rylands v Fletcher (1868) L.R. 3 H.L. 330. In the year 1868, the principle of strict liability stated that any person who keeps hazardous substances on his premises will be held responsible if such substances escape the premises and causes any damage. Going into the facts of the case, F had a mill on his land, and to power the mill, F built a reservoir on his land. Due to some accident, the water from the reservoir flooded the coal mines owned by R. Subsequently, R filed a suit against F. The Court held that the defendant built the reservoir at his risk, and in course of it, if any accident happens then the defendant will be liable for the accident and escape of the material.

Going by the principle laid in this case, it can be said that if a person brings on his land and keeps some dangerous thing, and such a thing is likely to cause some damage if it escapes then such person will be answerable for the damaged caused. The person from whose property such substance escaped will be held accountable even when he hasn’t been negligent in keeping the substance in his premises.

The liability is imposed on him not because there is any negligence on his part, but the substance kept on his premises is hazardous and dangerous. Based on this judicial pronouncement, the concept of strict liability came into being. There fare some essential conditions which should be fulfilled to categorize a liability under the head of strict liability.

These three condition needs to be satisfied simultaneously to constitute a strict liability:

-Dangerous Substances


– Non-natural Use

Essentials of Strict Liability-

Dangerous Substances: The defendant will be held strictly liable only if a “dangerous” substances escapes from his premises. For the purpose of imposing strict liability, a dangerous substance can be defined as any substance which will cause some mischief or harm if it escapes. Things like explosives, toxic gasses, water, electricity, etc. can be termed as dangerous things.

 Escape: One more essential condition to make the defendant strictly liable is that the material should escape from the premises and shouldn’t be within the reach of the defendant after its escape. For instance, the defendant has some poisonous plant on his property. Leaves from the plant enter the property of the plaintiff and is eaten by his cattle, who as a result die. The defendant will be liable for the loss. But on the other hand, if the cattle belonging to the plaintiff enter the premises of the defendant and eats the poisonous leaves and die, the defendant would not be liable.

Non-natural Use: To constitute a strict liability, there should be a non-natural use of the land. In the case of Rylands v. Fletcher, the water collected in the reservoir was considered to be a non-natural use of the land. Storage of water for domestic use is considered to be natural use. But storing water for the purpose of energizing a mill was considered non-natural by the Court.

When the term “non-natural” is to be considered, it should be kept in mind that there must be some special use which increases thedanger to others. For instance, if the defendant lights up a fire in his fireplace and a spark escapes and causes a fire, the defendant will not be held liable as it was a natural use of the land. These three condition needs to be satisfied simultaneously to constitute a strict liability.

Absolute Liability

The rule of absolute liability, in simple words, can be defined as the rule of strict liability minus the exceptions. In India, the rule of absolute liability evolved in the case of MC Mehta v Union of India. A.I.R. 1987 S.C. 1086:1987 ACJ 386

This is one of the most landmark judgment which relates to the concept of absolute liability. The facts of the case are that some oleum gas leaked in a particular area in Delhi from industry. Due to the leakage, many people were affected. The Apex Court then evolved the rule of absolute liability on the rule of strict liability and stated that the defendant would be liable for the damage caused without considering the exceptions to the strict liability rule.

According to the rule of absolute liability, if any person is engaged in an inherently dangerous or hazardous activity, and if any harm is caused to any person due to such activity which occurred during. carrying out such inherently dangerous and hazardous activity, then the person who is carrying out such activity will be held absolutely liable. The exception to the strict liability rule also wouldn’t be considered.

The rule laid down in the case of MC Mehta v UOI was also followed by the Supreme Court while deciding the case of Bhopal Gas Tragedy case. To ensure that victims of such accidents get quick relief through insurance, the Indian Legislature passed the Public Liability Insurance Act in the year 1991.

M.C.Mehta v. Union of India, AIR 1987 SC 1086. Allowing the petition for closure of the Shriram Fertiliser Industries plant, court said:

An enterprise which is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous industry which poses a potential threat to the health and safety of the persons working in the factory and residing in the surrounding areas owes absolute and non delegable duty to the community to ensure that no harm results to anyone on account of hazardous or inherently dangerous nature of activity it has undertaken.

The enterprise must conduct and follow the highest standards of safety and if any harm results on account of such activity, the enterprise must be absolutely held liable to compensate for such harm and the enterprise cannot take the excuse that it had taken all reasonable care and harm occurred without any negligence on its part.

Vicarious Liability in Criminal Law

General Rule: The principle of vicarious liability plays an important role in law of torts and civil law; generally should not be extended to criminal law because under criminal law the underlying principle is that a man should only be punished for his misdeeds and not others.

However; the English law has recognized two exceptions to this rule of non-liability:

  1. A master is vicariously liable for libel published by his servant. However, it is open to a master proprietor to show in defense that the libel was published without his authority and with no lack of care on his part.
  2. A master is vicariously responsible for a public nuisance committed by his servant.

It is within the power of the legislature to make certain illegal acts or omissions penal and fix an absolute liability upon the person, if a breach of certain enactment is made.

Acts or defaults of a servant or agent in the ordinary course of his employment makes the master or employee liable, once the absolute/strict liability is fixed, then the particular intent or state of mind is not the essence of offence; although he was not aware of acts or defaults and might have been against his orders.

However, such liability must be specifically imposed by the terms of the statue or at least the fact of implied liability must be sufficiently evident from the provisions of the statue. No person can be vicariously liable if a provision to this effect does not exist in the statue concerned. In fact, strict liability clauses in statues might result in the agents being made liable for the act of the master.


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