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Strict Liability in Tort Law: Origins, Exceptions and Modern Applications

This assignment delves into the concept of strict liability within the framework of tort law, examining its origins, essential conditions, exceptions, and modifications. Beginning with an overview of the principle as established in Rylands v Fletcher, the assignment explores the key elements necessary for the application of strict liability, including the presence of a dangerous thing, its escape, and unnatural land use. Additionally, exceptions to the rule, such as plaintiff's fault, acts of God, and third-party actions, are analysed to provide a comprehensive understanding of the doctrine's limitations.

Furthermore, the assignment discusses modifications to strict liability, particularly the absolute liability rule, as exemplified in the case of MC Mehta v. Union of India (1987), and its implications for contemporary legal practice. Through this exploration, the assignment aims to elucidate the nuances of strict liability and its significance in addressing civil wrongs arising from hazardous activities or substances.

Tort law is a critical aspect of legal systems worldwide, governing civil wrongs and providing remedies for those wrongs. Among the various doctrines within tort law, strict liability stands out as a principle holding individuals or entities responsible for damages caused by inherently dangerous activities or substances, regardless of fault. This concept has evolved over time, originating from the landmark case of Rylands v Fletcher in 1868. Through this case and subsequent legal developments, strict liability has become an essential tool for ensuring accountability in cases where potential harm is foreseeable.

It arose from the principle of incompetence, which commonly applies to reckless conduct. It entails a duty of responsibility to one's neighbours, with a violation of that duty resulting in harm to the neighbours. When the defendant is found to be negligent, he or she is held liable to pay the complainant for the damages incurred.

However, exceptions and modifications to this rule have emerged over time, reflecting the need for adaptability in response to changing societal and industrial landscapes.

Strict Liability:
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 was established called Strict Liability and accepted by the House of Lords. The principle of strict liability states that any person who keeps hazardous substances on his premises will be held responsible if such substances escape the premises and causes any damage.

Strict liability is one of the many kinds of Tort that came into existence to ensure the imposition of 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 compensate those inflicted. If this rule ceased to exist, it would bring an unequal balance of rights between the wrongdoer and the victim.

If we go by the definition Strict Liability is when due to the negligence of the Tortfeasor, any dangerous thing escapes from his/ her premises and harms anyone/ anything, then the liability is said to be strict liability.

Origin Of The Concept
The principle of strict liability evolved in the case of Rylands v Fletcher1 , In the year 1868. Going into the facts of the case, The plaintiff and defendant were neighbouring property owners. The defendant, a mill owner hired independent contractors 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 Court held that the defendant built the reservoir at his risk, and in course of it, if any accident happens then the defendant will be liable for the accident and escape of the material.

As per the law forced on this case, if an individual submits any activity with a conceivably unsafe medication on their reason, the person in question will be expected to take responsibility for any mischief caused by the spillage of the said material, if it got away because of their ineptitude

Act Done By An Independent Contractor
Generally, an employer is not liable for the wrongful act done by an independent contractor, but it is no defence to the application of this rule that the act causing damage had been done by an independent contractor. Hence, in the above case, the defendant was held liable to pay damages. It is the employers to duty to keep such dangerous substances in a proper and safe way so that it does not cause injury to others. Hence, he could not delegate his responsibility to his contractors.

Going by the principle laid in this case, it can be said that if a person brings on his land and keeps some dangerous thing, and such a thing is likely to cause some damage if it escapes then such person will be answerable for the damaged caused. The person from whose property such substance escaped will be held accountable even when he hasn't been negligent in keeping the substance in his premises. The liability is imposed on him not because there is any negligence on his part, but the substance kept on his premises is hazardous and dangerous. Based on this judicial pronouncement, the concept of strict liability came into being.

Essential Conditions To Strict Liability
There are three essentials for the application of this rule:
  1. Dangerous Thing
    The strict liability rule applies to 'Anything that can 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 the defendant 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. strict liability has three categories that 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 2established a determinant test wherein the plaintiff has the burden of proof and have to prove that the damage and harm were foreseeable by the defendant.
  2. 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 ultra- hazardous harm to the victim. The word 'escape' denotes to signify an escape from the place of the defendant or had control or owe it to a place which is outside his control or occupation.

    For instance, the defendant has some poisonous plant on his property. Leaves from the plant enter the property of the plaintiff and is eaten by his cattle, who as a result die. The defendant will be liable for the loss. But on the other hand, if the cattle belonging to the plaintiff enter the premises of the defendant and eats the poisonous leaves and die, the defendant would not be liable. In the judicial pronouncement of Reads v. Lyons & Co3. it was held that if there is no escape, the defendant cannot be held liable.
  3. Unnatural land use
    Collection of dangerous thing on land in a big quantity, which causes damage to the other if it escapes from that place, is considered to be non-natural use of land. However, keeping dangerous things for domestic purpose or in small quantity is a natural use where defendant can't be held liable.

    In the case of Rylands v. Fletcher, the water collected in the reservoir was considered to be a non-natural use of the land. When the term "non-natural" is to be considered, it should be kept in mind that there must be some special use which increases the danger to others.

    Supply of cooking gas through the pipeline, electric wiring in a house, etc. is considered to be the natural use of land. For instance, if the defendant lights up a fire in his fireplace and a spark escapes and causes a fire, the defendant will not be held liable as it was a natural use of the land.

Exceptions O The Rule Of Strict Liability
There are certain exceptions to the rule of strict liability where it doesn't apply, these are:

Plaintiff's Fault:
If the plaintiff is at fault and any damage is caused, the defendant wouldn't be held liable, as the plaintiff himself came in contact with the dangerous thing.

In the judicial pronouncement of Ponting v Noakes4, the plaintiff's horse died after it entered the property of the defendant and ate some poisonous leaves. The Court held that it was a wrongful intrusion, and the defendant was not to be held strictly liable for such loss.

Act of God:
An act of God is a sudden, direct and irresistible act of nature that nobody can reasonably prepare for. It can cause damage regardless of how many precautions one may take.

The defendant wouldn't be liable for the loss if the dangerous substance escaped because of some unforeseen and natural event which couldn't have been controlled in any manner.

Act of the Third Party:
The rule also doesn't apply when the damage is caused due to the act of a third party. The third party means that the person is neither the servant of the defendant, nor the defendant has any contract with them or control over their work. But where the acts of the third party can be foreseen, the defendant must take due care. Otherwise, he will be held responsible.

For instance, in the case of Box v Jubb5, where the reservoir of the defendant overflowed because a third party emptied his drain through the defendant's reservoir, the Court held that the defendant wouldn't be liable.

Consent of the Plaintiff:
This exception follows the principle of volenti non fit injuria.

For instance, if A and B are neighbours, and they share the same water source which is situated on the land of A, and if the water escapes and causes damage to B, he can't claim damages, as A wouldn't be liable for the damage.

Modification Of The Rule Of Strict Liability
The Supreme Court applied a stricter version of the rule of strict liability in the case of MC Mehta v. Union of India (1987)6. In this case, harmful Oleum gas had escaped from a factory owned by Shriram foods & Fertilizer Industries. The gas had caused a lot of damage to people and industries nearby.

The Supreme Court held that, despite being so stringent, the strict liability rule was inadequate in modern times. This is because scientific advancements have made modern industries even more dangerous and hazardous. Hence, the court laid down the absolute liability rule in this case.

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.

According to the absolute liability rule, no exceptions of strict liability shall apply in certain cases. Therefore, the people who cause damage will have unlimited liability to compensate victims adequately. Courts in India have applied this rule in many cases to create deterrence.

In conclusion, strict liability serves as a vital component of tort law, offering a mechanism for holding individuals and entities accountable for damages caused by inherently risky activities or substances. Originating from the landmark case of Rylands v Fletcher, this principle has undergone significant development, shaping legal doctrines and providing a framework for addressing complex issues of liability. By imposing responsibility irrespective of fault, strict liability promotes fairness and ensures that those who engage in potentially harmful endeavors bear the burden of potential harm.

However, the doctrine is not without its limitations, as evidenced by exceptions and modifications introduced over time to address specific circumstances. Nonetheless, strict liability remains a crucial tool for promoting safety and accountability in modern society, evolving in response to changing societal and industrial dynamics. As legal systems continue to adapt to new challenges, the concept of strict liability will likely remain a cornerstone of tort law, facilitating justice and redress for those affected by unforeseen harms.

  • Ratanlal and Dhirajlal, The Law of Torts, (26th Edition)
  • M.N. Shukla: The Law of Torts, (20th Edition)
  • Dr. S.R. Myneni, Law of Torts & Consumer Protection, (2nd Edition)
  • Rosedar S R A, Law of Torts & Consumer Protection Act, (2nd Edition)
  1. (1868) LR 3 HL 330
  2. [1994] 1 All ER 53
  3. [1947] AC 156 House of Lords
  4. (1849) 2 QB 281
  5. LR 4 EX Div 76
  6. 1987 AIR 1086

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