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. Generally in legal action the plaintiff has to prove that the defendant is liable either by negligence or fault. However, in Strict Liability the plaintiff only needs to prove that the tort occurred and the defendant was responsible. Strict Liability is a kind of Tort that makes a person or entity responsible for their acts even when the consequences were unintentional. Law also imposes liability only on those actions which it feels are naturally dangerous. Strict Liability is also known as ‘no fault liability’. It is due to the immateriality of intention and negligence.
In criminal law, strict liability is considered as an exception whereas in civil was some jurists consider it as a rule because intention is immaterial and the only thing that matters is that the plaintiff has suffered harm.
One of the early cases where the rule of Strict Liability was first acknowledged was in the case of Ryland vs. Fletcher in this case, the House of Lords have laid down the rule that a person who, in the course for the accumulation on it of anything likely to do harm if it escapes, is liable for the interference with the use of the land of another which results from the escape at the thing from his land. In simple words the rule of Ryland v. Fletcher states that when a person allows a dangerous substance in their land, and if it escapes, causes harm to the surrounding people, then that person who brought the substance is liable for the damage caused.
Essential elements of Strict liability
There are there essential elements under strict liability:
For the applicability of Strict Liability it is essential that the substance that escapes must be dangerous in nature. The substance must be harmful to cause damage to other’s land on escaping, whether or not this involves personal danger is quite irrelevant, nor its extra hazardous quality of the thing in the sense that it might be likely to harm persons who are on the premises where it is kept. Things which have been held to be within the rule include electricity, gas, things likely to pollute water supplies, explosives, fire and things likely to cause fire and so on.
Escape means an escape from a place which is in the occupation and control of the defendant. It is essential for the strict liability that the material escapes the premises and also out of the reach of the defendant.
In the case Read v. Lyons and Co. it was held by the House of Lords that- the defendant was not liable because the accident has occurred in the premises of the factory and there was no escape of anything from there which could have caused damage to any person.
Non- natural use of land
The defendant is only answerable if, bringing the thing; he is making a non- natural use of his land. The word ‘non- natural’ must be focused upon. There was a special use of land which caused or increased the danger for people. In the case Richards v. Lothian it was said “it must be special use bringing with it increased danger to others and must not merely be the ordinary use of land.”
Also this rule applies only when the defendant brings or accumulates on his land for his own purpose something which is likely to escape and to do mischief. He will not be liable for the escape of things which are naturally present on the land.
Types of Strict Liability
2. Abnormally dangerous activities
3. Product liability
The injuries caused to the plaintiff by animals owned by the defendant are also recognised by law as a subject matter for strict liability. These are divided into three main categories:
Livestock: These are the animals which are kept by people most likely as assets and not pets. These animals may include horses, cows, buffalos, goats, sheep etc. The instances where these animals break away from there barns and cause rampage or any kind of damage to the neighbouring people then it will be cause strict liability to its owner.
Dangerous Animals: This category contains pet animals or others that have dangerous tendencies and also the owner has the knowledge about it. Such as if a cat or a fierce breed dog that are not friendly and attack the people around them. This category does not contain any specific breed of animal. Any animal which has a dangerous temperament can be considered as dangerous animal.
Wild Animals: Generally the harm done by wild animals in possession of some people is considered as absolute liability on the owner. But it can also be covered under Strict Liability. It does not matter how much due care and diligence have been applied by the owner of that wild animal, if it causes harm to any other person or property the owner will be faced with strict liability.
Abnormally dangerous activities
A person who carries on abnormally dangerous activity is subjected to liability for any person around even though they exercised due care while performing such activity. It is considered while adjudicating that whether these activities actually pose any dangerous risk to people, and whether or not such activities could be performed without the risk f causing harm to people even with due care. Such activities include storing of explosives, harmful gases, demolition activities, disposing of hazardous waste etc.
Here, for the liability to arise, the plaintiff has to prove that the product involved in causing the harm had a certain defect while it left the possession of the defendant. The defect can be ‘manufacturing defect’, ‘defect in its design’ or ‘defective because of lack of adequate instructions’.
Exceptions to the Rule of Strict Liability
The rule of strict liability does not apply in the following circumstances:
- Natural use of a thing
- Act of God
- Act of stranger
- Common Benefit
- Consent of Plaintiff
- Mistake of plaintiff
- Statutory authority
Natural use of a thing
The rule of Ryland v. Fletcher does not apply in the cases where the things are present on a person’s land in the natural form or arises on the land, even though they are dangerous. This rule applies to the things artificially brought to the land. Even in case of the things brought artificially, the question arises whether the defendant is liable to his neighbours if he had kept those things for naturals use?
In Hello v. Lankashire and Yorkshire Rly Co. it was held that the owner of a land is not liable for things which arise naturally.
Act of God
It is a mere short way of expressing the scenario that the defendant is not liable for any accident as to which he can show that it is due to the natural causes directly and exclusively without human intervention and that it could not have been prevented by any amount of foresight plans and care reasonably to be expected from him. This term signifies such as, operations of natural forces as extra- ordinary rainfall and flood or earthquake. The defendant can put forth the excuse that the escape of the thing was due to the act of God.
Act of Stranger
The defendant is not held liable for the escape of a thing if the escape is caused by a third person without the knowledge or authority of the defendant provided he (defendant) is not negligent and has not committed a breach of duty to take the necessary precaution against the interference of strangers. In Box v. Jubb, the defendant was not held liable due to the act of third person who without the defendant’s authority or knowledge emptied the water of his own reservoir into the defendant’s.
If the dangerous thing that is most likely to cause harm is bought to the land for the common benefit of both, the defendant and the plaintiff, that only the defendant cannot be made liable for the harm it caused by the escape, provided that there was no negligence on the part of the defendant.
Consent of the Plaintiff
Where the things that escapes were brought or kept upon defendant’s land with the consent of the plaintiff, in such case this rule does not apply. It cannot be used as a defence when the plaintiff’s were the one allowing the presence of the dangerous substance.
Mistake of Plaintiff
This defense was recognised long ago in the case of cattle-trespass where it was due to the plaintiff’s breach of duty to fence his land. Similarly, a person cannot complain of injury due to his meddling with a dangerous thing, or his trespassing in another’s premises or to some neglect on his part.
In Madras Rly Co. v. The Zamindar of Karvetnagar the Privy Council held that a tank maintained by a zamindar under statutory authority breached by excessive rainfall. The defendant must take out that the particular act causing damage was authorised by statute expressly or by necessary implication.
1. Where ‘A’ has a wild animal in his possession, that animal escapes and injured the neighbours of ‘A’. Here A is strictly liable for the harm caused by the dangerous animal.
2. In a case where an E possess harmful substance and has employed certain workers to work in his facility. He has applied due diligence that his workers do not get injured by such substance. If an injury is caused to W due to an escape of the dangerous substance, caused by his own negligent actions, here E, i.e., the actual possessor of the harmful substance will not be made liable for the escape of such substance.
3. ‘A’ bought a product due to which harm is caused to the surroundings. It was concluded that the product was defected before it came into ‘A’s possession, here either the manufacturer or the seller will undergo the penalty of strict liability.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What are instances of Strict Liability?
There are three instances if Strict Liability. They are- Mistake of law, mistake of fact and accident.
Mistake of law: It means ignorance of law is not excusable. Law will not acquire intention or knowledge. Liability will arise if a person commits any wrong whether he knows law or not. No man take the defence that he didn’t knew his action was against the law.
Mistake of Fact: It means that ignorance of fact is excusable. In civil law, liability is strict as mistake of fact is not excusable. Where as in criminal law, mistake of fact is excusable.
Accident: Accident is an unintentional act. It can be made excusable after careful analysis of the case.
2. How is Absolute liability different from Strict Liability?
The rule of absolute liability can be defined same as the rule of Strict Liability minus the defences. Due to the case of Ryland v. Fletcher it was scene that strict liability can also be escaped. There were many exception/defences for wrongdoers to use and try to save themselves. Absolute Liability imposes liability direct on the wrongdoer leaving no way of avoiding liability. E.g., driving without a licence imposes absolute liability, there is no escaping it. In India the landmark case for absolute Liability is M.C. Mehta v. Union of India also known as the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Case.
3. Is strict liability a tort?
Yes. Under Tort law Strict Liability is an imposition of liability on a person without finding the fault or mistake. The damages are sufficient enough to incur liability. It is different from negligence as the onus of proof is not on plaintiff to prove that the harm was caused by the fault of the defendant.
 Ryland V. Fletcher (1868) 19 LT 220.
R.K Bhangia, law of Tort, (378-391).
Read v. Lyons and Co. (1947) AC 156 (HL).
Richards v. Lothian (1913) AC 263.
(1884) 13 QBD 131.
Province of Madras v. T.S.C., AIR 1956 Mad 589.
(1879) LR 4 Ex D 76; Wilson v. Newberry  LR 7 QB 31.
Holden v. Liverpool New Gas Coal & coke & co. (1846) 3 CB1.
(1864) 1 Ia 364.
 AIR 1987 SC 1086.