Strict Liability and Absolute Liability: A detailed guide!

Strict liability and absolute liability

There are some important rules when it comes to the law of torts. What type of liability can arise, who can sue and who can be sued under what circumstances? These aspects are all guided by certain rules. The concept of strict liability and absolute liability is of relevance here.

Meaning of strict liability and its conditions

Sometimes, a person may be held liable for doing something wrong even if there was no negligence on his part, no intent to do something wrong, or even if he took all the necessary precautions to avoid such a wrongful act from happening. This is known as the principle of strict liability, and it is based on the theory of no-fault. The principle of strict liability was first established in the landmark case of Rylands v. Fletcher.

It lays down the following:

“Anyone who in the course of “non-natural” use of his land “accumulates” thereon for his own purposes anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, is answerable for all direct damage thereby caused.”

In the case of Rylands v Fletcher (1868) LR 3 HL 330, the defendant went on to build a reservoir on his land to increase the water supply there, but the water from the reservoir flowed down to the coal mine in the neighbourhood, which belonged to the plaintiff. Thus, it caused damage. The reservoir was built by some engineers who had been hired by the defendant as independent contractors. Even though the defendant had not been negligent as he had hired competent engineers to do the job, he was accountable for the loss caused by the operations carried out on his land. Hence, at the Court of the Exchequer, the defendant was held liable without having been negligent.

To constitute a strict liability, the following essential elements must be present:

  • There has to be some hazardous thing that is brought by the defendant onto his land.
  • The hazardous thing must have escaped the territory of the defendant and must have caused damage.

For example, a ferocious dog who belongs to the defendant and is tied is not an issue, but if he is unchained and escapes, the owner may be held strictly liable. But remember, for invoking strict liability, there must be some sort of legal injury that is caused to the plaintiff for which he can be compensated.

  • There has to be a non-natural use of land.

Time, place, surroundings, circumstances, and purpose all contribute to deciding whether a particular use is natural or non-natural. A person keeping wild animals on his land is an example of non-natural use of land. Likewise, a person making a reservoir on his land to harness water also contributes to non-natural use.

Exceptions to the imposition of strict liability

There are some defences available to the defendant against strict liability and they can be claimed as under:

  • Escape of the hazardous thing was because of the plaintiff’s own consent

In cases where some work is done for the common benefit of the plaintiff and defendant, with the consent of the plaintiff, then he cannot seek compensation if any damage is caused.

For example, A and B are both residents of the same apartment complex. “A” installs a water tank on B’s terrace with B’s permission to service both of their apartments. One day, the water in the tank overflows, causing considerable damage to one of the walls in B’s flat. Now, B cannot sue A for damages.

  • Act of God

Things like storms, floods, lightning, and unusually heavy rain must occur for an act of God to be accepted. Then it can be used to defend against the rule of strict liability. It means that the defendant can’t be held liable if the damage is caused on account of forces of nature.

  • Act of a stranger or third party

When a third party to the two parties in question does a wrongful act that causes certain circumstances to happen that could harm a person or his property, it is referred to as a wrongful act of a third party and is a defence to the rule of strict liability.

For example, if an unknown third party unchained the dog who was tied on the defendant’s premises and the dog went on to harm the plaintiff, the defendant may not be held liable if he took reasonable care.

  • Default of the plaintiff

When it is due to the fault of the plaintiff himself that his property or any person has been damaged, he cannot claim damages from the defendant.

  • The act was done by any statutory authority

If an act has been authorized by the State and does not involve an element of negligence, it can be used as a defence against the rule of strict liability.

Meaning of absolute liability

Absolute liability is a more stringent version of strict liability. It relates to the no-fault theory of liability in which the wrongdoer is held absolutely accountable for the act of omission or commission without resorting to any of the defences or exceptions provided under the rule of strict liability.

It applies to those individuals who are engaged in any hazardous or dangerous activity, making them absolutely liable to pay compensation for any harm that is caused to anyone as a result of the operation of such hazardous activity. M.C. Mehta v. Union of India 1987 A.I.R. 1086 (Oleum gas case) established the rule of absolute liability for the first time.

Origination of the rule of absolute liability

The Supreme Court of India developed its own variation of the rule of strict liability in the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, eliminating the conditional requirements and leaving only one requirement for applicability. This requirement states that the defendant must be engaged in a hazardous or dangerous activity and that harm is caused to the plaintiff(s) as a result of an incident in the course of the defendant’s operations.

In this case, oleum gas had leaked from one of the units of Shriram Foods and Fertiliser Industries. Because of this, one person died and some others were injured. A claim of compensation was made in the form of a writ petition filed in the Supreme Court as part of public interest litigation.

The Court determined that victims of leakage of dangerous substances could not be compensated under Rylands v Fletcher’s rule of strict liability. This was so because there were multiple exceptions to the rule that allowed the defendant to avoid liability. In this background, the Supreme Court concluded that it was not bound by an English law rule formed in a different context in the nineteenth century, and developed a new rule, called the rule of absolute liability.

The Court held as under:

“We are of the view that 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 an 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 the activity which it has undertaken.”

Hence, the conditional requirements such as a non-natural use of land or that the thing escapes and causes damage are not relevant under the concept of Absolute Liability. It is much stricter and has only one requirement that the enterprise should be engaged in a hazardous activity. Moreover, it will hold the defendant liable even if he can demonstrate that he exercised all reasonable care and there was no carelessness on his part.

Also, the exemptions provided under the rule of strict liability are not available in the case of absolute liability. In fact, absolute liability is commonly expressed as strict liability minus exemptions.

Differences between the two

From the above explanations, many points of distinction can be drawn between strict liability and absolute liability.

Necessary conditions and accountability:

The rule of strict liability comes into play when a person makes a non-natural use of his land and a hazardous thing escapes thereby causing damage. But the rule of absolute liability as evolved through the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India did away with the conditions required to establish strict liability. To invoke absolute liability, it is enough if the defendant is engaged in a hazardous or potentially dangerous activity and an accident happens during the course of such activity.

Exceptions:

The rule of strict liability is subject to certain exceptions like an act of God, a wrongful act of a third party, etc. But unlike the principle of strict liability, there are no exceptions to the rule of absolute liability.

Nature of damages:

Plaintiffs are normally made to receive only ordinary and compensatory damages under the rule of strict liability. However, those who are found to be absolutely liable may be ordered to pay exemplary damages, and the larger and more successful the business, the greater must be the amount of compensation that it must pay out.

Coverage:

Only those enterprises which are engaged in hazardous or potentially dangerous activities shall be held liable under the rule of absolute liability. This implies that all other industries not falling within the aforesaid purview shall be subject to the rule of strict liability.

The escape of a hazardous thing:

In the case of absolute liability, the escape of a hazardous thing from one’s own land/territory is not necessary. It means that the principle of absolute liability shall be applicable to those injured within the premises as well as persons outside the premises.

Non-natural use of land:

In Ryland v Fletcher’s case, the water collected in the reservoir was considered to be non-natural use of land. (But storage of water for domestic purposes is considered to be natural).

The rule of Ryland v Fletcher applies solely to non-natural uses of land, whereas the rule of absolute liability applies to even natural uses of land. If a person uses a dangerous substance that may be a natural use of land and if such substance escapes, he will be held liable even though he took all the reasonable care.

Conclusion

The rule of absolute liability is comparable to the concept of strict liability with some modifications. This rule applies without any limitation or exception and makes a person fully liable for his fault.

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Ruchi Gandhi

The author enjoys to write informational content in the domain of company law and allied laws. She takes interest in doing thorough and analytical research on legal topics. She is a CA along with MBA (Fin) and M. Com.

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