Strict Liability and Absolute Liability

Introduction to Strict Liability and Absolute Liability

There are certain activities which are very dangerous that they constitute a constant threat to person and property. The law may handle such situations in two ways. The law might prohibit them altogether. It may ask them to carry on for the sake of society but only in accordance with statutory rules and provisions which lays down safety measures and provides for sanctions for non-compliance through the way of the doctrine of ‘Strict liability’. Absolute liability is nothing but applying of Strict Liability but without any exceptions.

Generally, a person is liable for his own wrongful acts and one does not incur any liability for the acts done by others. In certain cases, like vicarious liability, the liability of one person for the act done by another person may arise. Liability can further be classified as Strict Liability and Absolute Liability.

Strict Liability and Absolute Liability

What is Strict Liability?

Meaning of Strict Liability: – Strict liability is a kind of liability under which a person is legally responsible for the consequences flowing from an activity even in the absence of fault or criminal intent on the part of the defendant. It is basically a legal doctrine that holds a party (defendant) responsible for its actions, without the plaintiff having to prove the negligence or fault on the part of defendant.

The principle of strict liability evolved in the case of Rylands vs. Fletcher. In the year 1868, the principle of strict liability states 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, Fletcher had a mill on his land, and to power the mill, Fletcher built a reservoir on his land. Due to some accident, the water from the reservoir flooded the coal mines owned by Rylands. Subsequently, Rylands filed a suit against Fletcher. 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.

According to 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 held responsible 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 precedent, the concept of strict liability came into being. 

According to the rule, if any person brings any dangerous thing on his land for non-natural use and that dangerous thing has the ability to escape on its own and causes harm, such person shall be liable for it even though there was no negligence on his part. This is known as the rule of strict liability. Such things may be any harmful gas, water, or chemicals.

When any person involves in ultra-hazardous activities such as keeping wild animals, using explosives or making defective products, then he/she may be held liable if any other person is injured because of that activity, even if the defendant took necessary precautions and followed safety requirement.

What are the essentials of strict liability?

For the application of the rule, the following three essentials should be there: –

  1. Dangerous Things: – The strict liability for the escape of thing from one’s land arises only when the thing collected was a dangerous thing. In Rylands vs. Fletcher, the thing was large water body (reservoir). 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, electricity, etc. can be termed as dangerous things.
  1. Escape: – The dangerous thing bought must escape and cause damage. For the rule in Rylands vs. Fletcher to apply, it is also essential that the thing causing the damage must escape to the area outside the occupation and control of the defendant. The case of Read vs. Lyons and Co, is an example of no escape and hence no liability. In this case, the plaintiff was an employee in the defendant’s ammunition factory, while she was performing her duties inside the defendant’s remises, a shell, which was being manufactured there, exploded and she was injured. There was no evidence of negligence on the part of defendant. It was held that the defendant was not liable because there was no escape of thing outside the defendant’s premises. So, the rule of Rylands v. Fletcher did not apply to this case.
  1. Non-Natural Use of Land: – There should be non-natural use of land to make the defendant liable. Like in Rylands vs. Fletcher case, 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. 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.

Exceptions to the Rule of Strict Liability

The following exceptions to the rule have been recognised by Rylands v. Fletcher and some later cases: –

  1. Act of God: – Any natural event which is not predictable, controllable or preventable, damage caused by such event cannot be held liable for. Such acts happen exclusively due to natural reasons and cannot be prevented even while exercising caution and foresight. The defendant wouldn’t be liable for the loss if the dangerous substance escaped because of some unforeseen and natural event which couldn’t have been controlled in any manner.
  1. Consent of the Plaintiff: – If two persons with common consent bring any non-natural thing for the mutual benefit and such thing causes damage, either of them cannot claim damages from each other. When the plaintiff has consented to the accumulation of the dangerous thing on the defendant’s land, the liability under the rule does not arise. Such consent is implied where the source of danger is for the ‘common benefit’ of both the plaintiff and the defendant.
  1. Act of Third Party: – The rule also doesn’t apply when the damage is caused due to the act of a third party, who is neither the defendant’s servant nor the defendant has any control over him, the defendant will not be liable under this rule. But where the acts of the third party can be foreseen, the defendant must take due care. Thus, in Box vs. Jubb, the overflow from the defendant’s reservoir was caused by the blocking of a drain by strangers, the defendant was not held liable for that.
  1. Statutory Authority: – An act done under the authority of State is a defence to an action for tort. The defence is also available when the action is under the rule in Rylands vs. Fletcher. Statutory authority however cannot be pleaded as a defence when there is negligence.
  1. Plaintiff’s Own Default: – If the plaintiff is at fault and any damage is caused, the defendant wouldn’t be held liable, as the plaintiff himself came in contact with the dangerous thing. If the plaintiff suffers damage by his own intrusion into the defendant’s property, he cannot complain for the damage so caused. In the judicial pronouncement of Ponting vs. Noakes, the plaintiff’s horse died after it entered the property of the defendant and ate some poisonous leaves. The Court held that it was a wrongful intrusion, and the defendant was not to be held strictly liable for such loss. 

What is Absolute Liability?

Meaning of Absolute Liability: – Absolute liability is nothing but applying Strict Liability but without any exceptions of strict liability. The rule of absolute liability, in simple words, can be defined as the rule of strict liability minus the exception of strict liability. In India, the rule of absolute liability evolved in the case of MC Mehta vs. Union of India.

The facts of the case are that On the night of 2nd December 1984, the plant leaked 40 tons of dangerous gas (methyl isocyanate). Due to the leakage, many people were affected. The adjoining area around the plant became a gas chamber because of which 3000 people died, and various others were injured. During the investigation, it was found that all the safety systems of the plant were non-functional. The Supreme 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.

The principle laid down in the MC Mehta case by Supreme Court is as follows:

“Where an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity, and harm results to anyone on account of an accident in the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity is strictly and absolutely liable to compensate all those who are affected by the accident, and such liability is not subject to any of the exceptions which operate vis-à-vis the tortious principle of strict liability under the rule in Rylands vs Fletcher.”

Bhopal Gas Tragedy

This rule was upheld in the infamous Bhopal Gas Tragedy which took place between the night of 2nd and 3rd December, 1984. Leakage of ‘Methyl Isocyanate’ poisonous gas from the Union Carbide Company in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh led to a major disaster. Over three thousand people lost their lives. There was heavy loss to property, flora and fauna. A case was filed in the American New York District Court as the Union Carbide Company in Bhopal was a branch of the US based Union Carbide Company. The case was dismissed owing to no jurisdiction. The Government of India enacted the Bhopal Gas Disaster Act, 1985 and sued the company for damages on behalf of the victims. The court applying the principle of Absolute Liability held the company liable and ordered it to pay compensation to victims.

Inception in India:

The following modifications in the existing Doctrine of Rylands vs. Fletcher led to the following Doctrine of Absolute Liability that prevented the defendants from taking up any defence against payment of compensation: –

  1. If an industry or enterprise is involved in any inherently dangerous activity, then for any damage arising out of the conduction of that activity, the defendants (the owners of the industry) will have no access to any defence or exception and will be absolutely liable to pay compensation to the aggrieved parties.
  1. The enterprise will be held responsible for all possible damages or consequences resulting from the activity. This will make such industries provide safety equipments to its workers to prevent any mishap. Therefore, this will safeguard the interests of the workers and will give them a refined, safe working atmosphere.
  1. The element of escape which is an essential in strict liability may be ignored here as this restricts the application of this Doctrine of Absolute Liability as often incidents may arise where escape of the dangerous thing like poisonous fumes may not take place outside the industry premises but may damage the workers inside. In this case, the workers’ right to compensation will not be ignored. Therefore, the extent of this principle is to be applied in a wider context ruling out the element of escape.
  1. In cases where strict liability applies, compensation paid is according to the nature and quantum of damages caused but in cases of absolute liability, compensation or damage to be paid is exemplary in nature. The amount decided upon should be more than the damage caused as industrial hazardous accidents generally causes mass death and destruction of property and environment.

Difference between Strict Liability and Absolute Liability

The difference between Strict Liability and Absolute Liability is given as follows: –

  1. In strict liability, any person can be made liable, whereas, in absolute liability, only an enterprise can be made liable (commercial objective).
  2. In strict liability, the escape of a dangerous thing is necessary, whereas, in absolute liability, an enterprise can be made responsible even without an escape.
  3. Certain exceptions are available to a person in strict liability, whereas no defences are available in absolute liability.

Case Laws

  1. Rickards vs. Lothian, (1913) AC 263

Facts of the case: – Some strangers blocked the waste pipe of a wash basin, which was otherwise in the control of the defendant and left the tap open. The water overflowed because of this mischief caused by the strangers and damaged the plaintiff’s goods.

Judgement of the case: In this case, the defendant was not held liable as this was an act of the stranger which could not be foreseen by the defendant. However, when the act of the stranger can be foreseen by the defendant and damage can be prevented from happening, proper care and duty must be exercised by the defendant to prevent the act from occurring.

  1. Nichols vs. Marsland, (1876)

Facts of the case: – The defendant had some artificial lakes that he had formed by damming up a natural stream for several years. However, an extra-ordinary rainfall that year greater and more violent that any rainfall ever witnessed there broke the artificial embankments by the stream and the rushing water carried away with it four bridges of the plaintiff.

Judgment of the case: – In this case, the court held the defendant not liable as she was not negligent and this being an act of God was beyond her control.

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