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The Principle Of Strict Liability Under The Law Of Tort

In the words of legal scholar, Sir John Salmond "A tort is a civil wrong for which the remedy is an action for unliquidated damages, and which is not exclusively the breach of a contract, or the breach of a trust, or the breach of other merely equitable obligation." Taking into context the uncodified Law of Tort, within circumstances of a wrongful act or an infringement of rights, civil liability is bound to fall upon the tortfeasor.

In the landmark case in 1868 of Rylands v Fletcher the Rule of Strict Liability was established and accepted by the House of Lords. Strict liability is one among the many kinds of Tort that came into existence to ensure the imposition of a liability on an individual or an entity in case of acts leading to damages or losses, even if these acts were unintentional consequences.

Hence, strict liability is also called the 'No Fault Liability.' The immateriality of intention and due care is the fine line that sets out strict liability from negligence. The court allows the defendant to engage in such risk imposing activities as long he stands ready to compensatethoseinflicted. If this rule ceased to exist, it would bring an unequal balance of rights between the wrongdoer and the victim.

Rylands v/s Fletcher
Facts: The plaintiff and defendant were neighbouring property owners. The defendant, a mill owner hired independentcontractors for the construction of a water reservoir on his land. While working, the contractors came across passages under the reservoir which was filled loosely only with Earth and Marl, but they chose to ignore the problem.

Once the reservoir was full, water broke through these shafts, flooding the mine property owned by the plaintiff causing considerable damage. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a suit against the defendant to recover his lost gains.

Issue: The issue in the case was if the defendant would be held liable for an act executed by another.

The Court of Exchequer Chamber rendered the defendantliable for the incurred damage to the plaintiff and hence The House of Lords laid down the 'Rule of Strict Liability.' This Rule states that when an individual permits the stay of a dangerous or hazardous substance onto his land and the substance escapes causing harm to the surroundings, then the individual who brought the substance to the land will be held liable for the resulted damage.

The civil liability falling onto the defendant would be immaterial of the fact that the defendant has taken reasonable care or not and therefore prima facie answerable. Evenso, the rule of strict liability entails certain exception based on circumstantial facts where the defendant's liability may be laid off.

Essential Conditions To Strict Liability

  1. Dangerous Thing
    The strict liability rule applies to 'Anything likely to do mischief if it escapes.' The essential feature that serves as the basis of applicability is that the word 'anything' refers to substances accumulated by thedefendant and brought by him to his property and not naturally occurring substances.

    The Courts usually use a fact based test in determining the 'dangerous thing' to form an analysis as to whether the thing is likely to cause danger or mischief if it escaped into the land's surroundings. There are three categories of strict liability which include animals both owned or possessed, Abnormally Dangerous Activities and Product liability.

    Things like explosives, noxious fumes, electricity, flag poles etc are some examples considered to be dangerous things. The Cambridge Water v. Eastern Counties Leather 8 established a determinant test wherein the plaintiff is required to prove that the damage and harm was foreseeable by the defendant.
  2. Unnatural Land use
    The rule of strict liability will apply if the defendant collects and operates any substance likely to cause mischief if it escapes. The storage of large quantities of dangerous materials, the casual way of its maintenance and the character of the neighbourhood are characters that go into circumstantial evidence depending on which liability maybe owed.
  3. Escape
    The mere evidence of a 'dangerous thing' is not enough to prove the defendant is liable, that substance must escape from the premises of the defendant to another's and inflict ultrahazardous harm to the victim. The word 'escape' denotes to signify an escape from the place the defendant had control or occupation to a place that is outside his control or occupation.

Defences Under Strict Liability Rule

  • Claimant's default
    The defendant cannot be held liable due to damage caused to the plaintiff as a result ofthe latter's own default. In fact, in Rylands v. Fletcher itself it was suggested that there would be no liability under the rule if the escape was due to the plaintiff's fault. In Ponting v. Noakes a horse owned by the claimant wandered into the defendant's land and partook leaves of a poisonous tree. The court held that the plaintiff was denied the benefit of the strict liability rule as the horse intruded into the defendant's premises.
    • Volenti Non Fit Injuria
      Where the claimant has impliedly or expressly consented with the defendant to bear the burden of the harmful situation together, the defendant cannot be held liable for the escape in substance and resulted harm, unless the plaintiff succeeds to prove lack of due care or negligence on the defendant's part. As in the case of, Dunne v. North West Gas Board the plaintiffs brought an action against the Gas Board after the gas had escaped from a rupture in the water main leading to five casualties. The defendant was not held liable as it was a consented act and the Gas Board had not accumulated the substance for its own benefit.
    • Vis Major
      Vis Major or the Act of God is considered as an event free from human intervention. In these circumstances the defendant will not shoulder responsibility if he can prove that human foresight and prudence could not have recognized the possibility of such harmful outcome.
    • Act of Third Party
      If damage is sufferedby a plaintiff due to an unforeseeable act of a stranger, the defendant shall not be held liable and the burden of proof shall remain with him to prove the same. In Box v. Jubb 13 the defendant's reservoir was overrun due to the deliberate act of the third party emptying his own reservoir into theirs. Moreover, if the defendant fails to take due care against an action that was forceable then he will be held liable for negligence.
  • Statutory Authority:
    Every so often, authority charged with providing a service to a society are exempted from liability if they are not found negligent. In the ruling of Green v. Chelsa Waterworks an Co, the court held that no company was not liable on the event of the burst in the main pipe as it was the duty of the defendant to maintain the main supply of water.

Evolution Of Absolute Liability Rule

In India, the rule of strict liability is an accepted doctrine, though rarely enforced in courts. In the Supreme court's ruling in the case of M.C Mehta v. Union of India15 the 19th century rule of strict liability was found to be inadequate to match these modern times due to the growing industrialization lending aid to developmental projects.

As the strict liability rule was subject to many exceptions, the court felt that there was hardly any rule left and hence this principle was replaced with the Rule of Absolute Liability. Ironically, the rule of absolute liability was stricter than strict liability as it entailed no exception.

This rule clearly holds that if an enterprise engages in a hazardous activity and this activity results in harm to anyone, the corporation would be held wholly responsible. Thereby, provoking the non-delegable and absolute nature of this principle.

The principle of compensatory justice remains the benchmark of the system of liability. Inorder to secure the goals of justice, liability needs to exist in a way that it adapts to the fast- shifting times. As new situations arise the law must be evolved in order to meet the challenge of such new situations.

The rule of strict liability may have served well in the past centuries with the reversal of burden of proof, but with the modernization of society and an increase in industrialization, a change in principle had to be made. The exceptions in strict liability principle would turn into excuses for enterprises to be careless in the exercise of reasonable care. The fault within the strict liability principle would thereby have become the Achilles' Heel of the country's judicial system.

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