Rules of Strict and Absolute Liability

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Strict Liability

Many times it so happens that the person is made liable for the act, which he may not have done, or moreover he has also made all possible efforts to avoid any harm caused by his act, but would still be held liable. That is there are rules under strict liability and absolute liability where the person is held liable even at places where he is at no fault. The law recognizes such rules and these are based upon the principles of ‘No Fault Liability’.

These rules have its derivatives from the case laws. The rule of Strict Liability was laid down in the case of Rylands vs. Fletcher[1] and therefore this rule is also termed as ‘Rule in Rylands vs. Fletcher’ but due to some exceptions as provided under this rule, the rule of Absolute liability was laid down. It was laid down in the case of M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India[2] where the Supreme Court held that there can be no defence available for the act done; the defendant would be liable for the act.

Rule of Strict Liability

The rule of strict liability was laid down in the year 1868. According to this rule, in this case, it was laid down that any person keeping any hazardous substance on his premises would be held liable if that substance escapes from there and harms others. At that point in time, it would be irrelevant, that whether the defendant has taken due care whether he was negligent or not. Under this principle, the person would be held liable even if he had taken proper care, provided there are certain exceptions under which defendant can run off his liability. 

Moving towards the facts of this case, the defendant got a reservoir constructed on his land for the purpose of supplying water to the mill. The work was done by an independent contractor.  There was an old disused shaft under the site which the contractor failed to notice and hence did not block it. As the water was filled into the reservoir there was a blast through the shaft and the resultant was that the water flooded from defendant’s property to plaintiff’s coal mines on adjoining land. It was held that as the reservoir was built at defendants own risk he was, made liable for damage so happened to the plaintiff.

While giving judgement it was held that if any person brings any hazardous substance on his land, and if that substance is likely to cause some damage which is dangerous if escape then such person would be held liable, even if he had taken proper care and hadn’t been negligent in keeping the substance at his place. Based on this judicial decision, the concept of strict liability came in vogue. There are certain essential conditions to be fulfilled to categorize a liability under strict liability.

Essentials

1. Dangerous Thing

As per this rule, anything that escapes from the land of one person cause damage to another would be liable under this principle, provided that the things which have been kept should be dangerous i.e. the things which if escapes would cause damage. As in the case of Rylands vs. Fletcher, the thing which was dangerous in this case was a large amount of water being stored. However, noxious fumes[3], explosives[4], flag-pole[5] etc are also considered as dangerous in other cases where the rule has been made applicable.

2. Escape

For the application of this principle, it is also necessary that the dangerous object so kept should also escape from the premises of the defendant which leads to a loss or damage to the property of plaintiff. However, if some incident happens due to the plaintiff’s own fault then the defendant won’t be held liable. Like if for example, where the cattle of plaintiff eats poisonous leaves of a plant, planted by a plaintiff in his own premises which not even escapes from his premises then if cattle die by eating such leaves defendant won’t be held liable.

In case of Read vs. Lyons & Co., the plaintiff was an employee under defendant’s ammunition factory. While she was performing her experiment in the defendant’s premises a shell which was manufactured the blast. As a result, the plaintiff suffered an injury. It was held that the defendant was not held liable as the accident occurred in the premises of the defendant.

3. Non-Natural use of Land

Another essential condition for the defendant to be held liable under this principle it is also necessary that there should be the non-natural use of land. As in Rylands vs. Fletcher case, the use of water in such a large amount was the non-natural use of land, storing water in usual amount doesn’t lead to any non-natural use. That is, for the use to be non-natural it must be for special purpose brings with it increased danger to others. As in the case of Sochacki vs. Sas[6] it was held that the fire in a house in a grate is an ordinary, natural use of the fireplace in a room. If this fire spreads to the adjoining premises, the liability under the strict liability rule can’t arise. As it is the natural use of land.

Exceptions

Exceptions to the following rule are:

1. Plaintiff’s own default

Damage caused by the escape due to the plaintiffs own can be considered as a good defence. That is, if the plaintiff suffers damage by his own intrusion into the defendant’s property then he has no right to complain about the damage so caused. Like in the case of Ponting vs. Noakes[7] there the horse of the plaintiff died because of nibbling the leaves of poisonous trees planted at defendants land. It was contended that the horse intruded in defendants’ property where he ate leaves and therefore defendant won’t be held liable for the same.

Moreover, if the damage suffered by the plaintiff was not because of escape but due to its incapacity to handle during its normal nature also then also the defendant won’t be held liable. As in case of Eastern and South African Telegraph Co. Ltd. vs. Capetown Tramways Co.[8] where the defendant’s submarine cable transmission was disturbed because of the escape current from the defendant’s tramways. Thereafter it was found that such won’t have occurred in ordinary business, as the plaintiff’s apparatus was sensitive. Their defense was not held liable. It was also contended that the plaintiff can’t increase the liability of his neighbor by applying his applying his own property to special uses.

2. Act of God

It has always been considered that where an incident occurs due to an unforeseeable event, which human body can’t have any control over it, then in such circumstances the person can’t be held responsible for any liability arising or any incident occurs there out of it. As held in the case of Nichols vs. Marsland[9] which serves as a good example for the Act of God. In this case, the defendant made artificial lakes over his land by damming up natural stream. That year there was unusual rain which has never occurred in the human history. Due to heavy rain the lakes over flooded and has caused damage to plaintiff’s property. It was held that the defendant couldn’t be made liable for the event so happened was unforeseen and therefore the defendant couldn’t be held liable under the rule of strict liability.

3. Consent of plaintiff

Where the plaintiff has voluntarily consented to suffer the harm for the common benefit of both then at that situation the defendant won’t be held liable. That is, if the plaintiff voluntarily has given consent to install such dangerous object on the defendant’s land then at that situation the defendant won’t be held liable for the loss suffered by the plaintiff. As in the case of, Carstair vs. Taylor[10] as in the case of there was a double storied building, where the plaintiff acquired a ground floor of the building and the defendant acquired the first floor. There was a leakage of water from the upper floor of the building which the plaintiff and defendant both have agreed to store. The defendant was at no fault for leakage. Due to the leakage plaintiff good were damage. It was held that the defendant couldn’t be made liable for the damage as it was the consented act.

4. The act of the third party

If the damage is suffered by the defendant without the fault of the defendant but due to the third party, who was neither defendant’s servant nor was in any relation to defendant then under those circumstances if any damage is suffered by plaintiff defendant won’t be held liable. As in the case of Box vs. Jabb[11] where there was an overflow of water from defendant’s reservoir causing damage to the plaintiff. It was revealed that the overflow so happened was due to the blocking of drain done by the stranger i.e. the third party. The defendant was not held liable under strict liability rule.

Rule of Absolute Liability

Absolute liability is a concept of law evolved in India, after the case of M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India[12] popularly known by the name of Oleum Gas Leak case. This case was a landmark judgment case for the principle of absolute liability. This principle is a kind of strict liability with no exception. That is under this principle the defendant won’t be allowed to plead any defence as there was under Rylands vs. Fletcher case.

In this case, the claim was arising from the leakage of oleum gas from the Shriram Food and Fertilizers Industries, in Delhi which was belonging to Delhi Cloth Mills Ltd. as a consequence of this leakage there was a huge loss of life and many people suffered from serious injuries. The case was filed by a writ petition under art 32 of the Constitution by way of PIL. This was a case immediately after one year of Bhopal Gas Leak case, where also many people died. Therefore, it was thought that there was a need to develop new rule as under strict liability there were exceptions available for the defendant from which they can easily run away from their liability. Therefore the new rule i.e. the rule of absolute liability was laid down.

Under this rule, if any person is engaged in any hazardous activity and if any harm occurs while carrying out such activity then the person will be held liable for the harm or the damage so occurred under absolute liability. Under this, he won’t be allowed to take any exception as was under the rule of Strict Liability. This principle was laid down on the basis of the idea that the enterprise who is earning profit from the general public should also be made liable if any harm is caused to them by their fault. This principle was also applied to Bhopal case where thousands of victims died and injured due to the leak of gas. After such incidents the India legislature passed The Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991 was passed for the speedy relief to the victims.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is strict liability and absolute liability same?

No, strict liability and absolute liability are not the same. As under strict liability, the defendant may get a chance to run from his liability of causing damage, whereas under absolute liability the defendant is held absolutely liable for his wrong doing. That is, even if both the rules stand for giving punishments for the wrong done by the defendant by dealing with hazardous substance without proper care, but they differ in cases of providing relaxation. As in strict liability, some defences are available but under absolute, there is no defence available to the defendant.

  • How strict liability differs from negligence?

Strict liability differs from negligence in the sense that in negligence plaintiff expects certainly reasonable care which defendant is legally bound to take care while performing any act. Nut with the case of strict liability the condition is that even if the defendant is not negligent, then also the could be held liable for his wrong done, subject to exceptions provided, but other than the exception the defendant is made liable. This is so because under strict liability the defendant owes the duty of care which is more than the ordinary prudent man would have taken.

  • What are strict liability offenses?

Strict liability includes all those offenses where there is the employment of some dangerous substance is done and also due to which if it escapes causes damage to others and where is the non-natural use of land is done. Thus where all the three conditions are fulfilled then that offense can be considered as a Strict Liability offense. Example, planting of a poisonous tree on one’s land whose branches if it escapes and causes damage to the plaintiff then it strict liability offense.

  • Is absolute liability same as negligence?

No, absolute liability and negligence differ from each other. As in negligence there is the duty of care imposed upon the defendant is based upon the care that an ordinarily prudent man would have taken to avoid any kind of damage, if any accident happens which is outside the reasonable foreseeability of the defendant then defendant won’t be held liable. Whereas under absolute liability there is no such exception, as the degree of care required under this is more than a prudent man would have taken, under this if any incident occurs then in no condition defendant could run out of his liability from paying compensation to the victims.

[References]

[1] (1868) L.R. 3 H.L. 330.

[2] A.I.R. 1987 S.C. 1086.

[3] West vs. Bristol Tramways Co., (1908) 2 K.B. 14.

[4] T.C. Balakrishnan vs. T.R. Subramanian, A.I.R. 1968 Kerela 151.

[5]Shiffman vs. Graud Priory, etc, (1936) 1 All. E.R. 557.

[6] (1947) 1 All E.R. 344.

[7] (1849) 2 Q.B. 281.

[8] (1902) A.C. 381.

[9] (1876) 2 Ex. D. 1.

[10] (1871) L.R. 6 Ex. 217.

[11] (1879) 4 Ex. D 76.

[12] A.I.R. 1987 S.C. 1086: 1987 ACJ 386.