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
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
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.
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
- 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
- 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.
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
- 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
- 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
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.
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.