There are circumstances when someone may be held responsible for injury they
have caused, even though they were not negligent, had no purpose to harm others,
or even if they took proactive measures to prevent the harm. The Strict
Liability principle is also called as 'No Fault Liability'.
This is against the basic rule of negligence in torts, which states that someone
can only be held accountable for the act of a tort if the plaintiff can
demonstrate negligence on his side and the defendant fails to refute it. Despite
taking all reasonable precautions, the defendant will invariably be held liable
for any harm that any hazardous item he maintained on the same piece of land
causes to a person who is outside of the defendant's property line. In other
words, the defendant can be held liable even if he had no knowledge of the
The doctrine of strict liability was first ever established in Rylands' v.
 case. The defendants in Rylands v. Fletcher
contractors to build a reservoir on their property. While digging, the
contractors discovered abandoned mines, but they did not adequately seal them.
They poured water into the reservoir. Water subsequently spilled into the
plaintiff's mines on the neighbouring property through the mineshafts. At
Liverpool Assizes, the plaintiff received a favourable ruling. The House of
Lords upheld the Court of Exchequer Chamber's ruling that the defendant was
Essential To Hold A Person Liable Under Strict Liability Are:
- Defendant brought something on his land:
There is a difference between the things that grow/occur naturally on land
or the thinhs which are artificial, in law. The defendant must accumulate
the things artificially into his/her land.
- Non-natural use of land:
Non-natural use of land means that there the land must be used for some
specific purpose. It is not used for some general purpose. As in Rylands v.
Fletcher case, the defendant got the reservoir constructed on his land.
There was no act or omission on his part but the water leaked from the
reservoir. There is the non-natural use of land. It is no ordinary use of
- Something likely to escape:
The thing which is been brought into the land must likely be able to escape
and cause some damage to the other person. In such case, the defendant will
be liable if it happens so because it is the defendant's duty to keep the
thing away from others.
There must be some damage caused to the other person due to the escape of
the thing which has been brought into the land of the defendant
Although there are certain circumstances when all the requirements of strict
liability are fulfilled yet the defendant will not be held accountable under
strict liability. When the plaintiff himself is himself at fault, if it is for
the benefit of both the parties, is the escape of the things happen due to the
act of stranger, if any statutory body authorised to carry out such particular
activity, and if the thing escaped and caused damage due to the act of God.
These are the exceptions to strict liability.
Defences Against Strict Liability
There are number of defences which has been developed in the rule of strict
liability which has been laid down in Rylands v. Fletcher case. Under such
circumstances, even if the thing escaped from the premise of the defendant, he
will not be held accountable for the damages caused due to the escape.
Such circumstances are:
Default Of The Plaintiff:
- Default of the plaintiff.
- Common benefit.
- Act of stranger.
- Act of God.
- Statutory Authority.
If the plaintiff has himself done some act which led the thing, at the
defendant's land, to escape and cause damage to him then the defendant will not
be held liable for such damage caused to the plaintiff.
In the case of Ponting v. Noakes
, the defendant had grown some
poisonous leaves in his land. The plaintiff's horse jumped off the boundaries of
the defendant's house and ate those poisonous leaves and died eventually. The
plaintiff then approached the Court of Law claiming compensation under the
principle of strict liability. The Hon'ble judge in this case said that the
vegetation on the defendant's land did not spread to the plaintiff's land. It
was the horse who jumped off the boundaries of defendant's house and ate those
plant leave. Here, the plaintiff is himself at fault. Therefore, the plaintiff
is not entitled to compensation.
When the plaintiff's property is damaged more by the unique sensitivity of the
plaintiff's own property than by the "escape" of the objects acquired by the
defendant, the plaintiff is not entitled to any compensation.
The undersea cable transmissions of the plaintiff in Eastern and South African
Telegraph Co. Ltd. v. Capetown Tramways Co. were interfered with by electric
current escaping from the defendant's tramways. It was determined that the
damage was caused by the plaintiff's equipment's unusually high sensitivity, and
since such damage wouldn't happen to someone going about their regular business,
the defendant was not held accountable for the escape.
The defendant will not be held accountable if the plaintiff has given his or her
express or implicit consent to the existence of a source of harm and there was
no carelessness on the defendant's part. In essence, it is the defendant's
court-adopted defence of "Volenti non fit injuria.
In the case of Peters vs. Prince of Wales Theatre Ltd. Birmingham
defendant owned a theatre and a rehearsal room linked to the same premises when
the plaintiff agreed to rent a shop there. In case of an emergency, the theatre
had a water storage system to put out a fire. Consequently, the water container
broke because of too much frost, and the water seeped into the plaintiff's store
and ruined his products.
He filed a suit claiming reimbursement of his losses
from the defendant. The court in this case said that the plaintiff had
implicitly agreed to the presence of the risks of a water storage tank located
next to his shop by accepting the defendant's premises on rent, thus the court
determined that the defendant was not accountable.
This exception of strict liability follows the principle of 'Volenti Non Fit
. The defendant will not be held accountable if the conduct or
escape of the harmful thing was done for the mutual advantage of the defendant
For example, if A and B are neighbours and share a water source that is on A's
property, and if the water leaks and harms B, he cannot sue for damages because
A is not responsible for the harm.
In the case of Box v. Jubb
, The plaintiff, who lived in the same
multi-story building as the defendant, had property damaged as a result of the
defendant's reservoir overflowing, which was caused in part by the defendant's
actions and in part by the neighbouring reservoir owners' actions. The water
reservoirs were created with the common good of all occupants of the multi-story
building, both the plaintiff and the defendant, in mind, hence the defendant was
not held accountable.
Act Of Stranger:
The defendant will not be accountable under this exception if the harm was
caused by an act of a stranger who neither serves the defendant nor is subject
to the defendant's control. The term "third party" denotes a person who is
neither the defendant's employee nor under the defendant's control or bound by
any contract. But the defendant must exercise due caution in cases when the
actions of the third party can be predicted. He will be held accountable if not.
For instance, if in the Rylands v. Fletcher case, the leak of water from the
reservoir have occurred due to an act of any third person on whom the defendant
doesn't have any control, then the defendant will not be held liable.
In Rickards vs. Lothian
 case, unknown individuals left the tap open
while blocking the waste pipe of a washbasin that belonged to the defendant but
was otherwise under his control. Due to the damage the strangers had made, the
water overflowed, damaging the plaintiff's belongings. As this was a stranger's
act that the defendant could not have expected, the defendant was not held
accountable. However, the defendant must take reasonable care and apply due
diligence to stop the act from happening when the defendant may foresee the
stranger's action and prevent harm from occurring.
Act Of God Or Vis-Major:
The phrase "act of God" means a situation that is unavoidable and uncontrollable
by any human agency. Even with prudence and forethought, such acts cannot be
stopped because they only occur for natural reasons. If the release of the toxic
substance was caused by an unforeseeable, uncontrollable natural catastrophe,
the defendant would not be responsible for the damage.
For instance, if there is a lake in the defendant's land but due to excessive
rainfall, the water in the lake spread over the entire surrounding damaging the
plaintiff's goods. In such scenario, the defendant will not be held responsible
as the excessive rainfall is beyond him or any human's control. Therefore, this
situation will come under the ambit of Act of God.
In the case of Blyth v. Birmingham Water Works Co
, The defendants had
built water lines that were sufficiently durable to withstand intense frost.
That year, an unexpectedly harsh frost caused the pipes to burst, severely
damaging the plaintiff's property. Although frost is a natural occurrence, it
was decided that its unexpectedly extreme incidence may be referred to an act of
God, acquitting the defendants of any responsibility.
Also, in Nichols v. Marshland
, on his property, the defendant has a
number of man-made lakes. Four of the plaintiff's bridges were lost as a result
of extraordinary rain that had never before been seen in live memory causing the
banks of the lakes to break. It was decided that the defendant was not
responsible because the plaintiff's bridges were destroyed by an act of God.
A defence to a tort claim is an act that was carried out with state
authorization. When the action falls under the rule of Strict Liability, the
defence is likewise admissible. However, statutory power cannot be used as a
justification where there is negligence.
In Green v. Chelsea waterworks & Co
., the defendants were required by
law to keep a consistent supply of water available. A few pipes broke naturally
during the course of the operation and without any negligence on the side of the
company, harming the plaintiff's premises nearby. The Company was not held
responsible for any damages because they had been required to do so by law.
Exceptions to the rule of Strict Liability provides the defendant with remedies
against being held liable under strict liability. Even if the damage caused by
the act done fulfils all the requirements of the rule of strict liability but
the act done includes any one of the exceptions then the defendant will have a
defence against strict liability and can escape the liability of being held
responsible. But the onus to prove the defences of strict liability lies on the
defendant, if proven, he/she cannot be held liable.
- Rylands' v. Fletcher (1868) LR 3 HL 330
- Ponting v. Noakes 1894, 2 QB 281
- Eastern and South African Telegraph Co. Ltd. v. Capetown Tramways Co.,
1902, UKPC 14
- Peters vs. Prince of Wales Theatre Ltd. Birmingham, 1942, 2 ALL ER 533
- Box v. Jubb, 1879, 4 Ex D 76
- Rickards vs. Lothian 1913, AC 263
- Blyth v. Birmingham Water Works Co., 1856 11 Ex Ch 781
- Nichols v. Marshland, [(1876) 2 ExD1]
- Green v. Chelsea waterworks & Co., 1894, 70 L.T. 547
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