Strict and Absolute Liability
The rule of strict liability was first introduced in the case of ‘Rylands v.
Fletcher’ in the year 1869. The brief facts of the case were that the defendant
hired independent contractors (engineers) to build a water reservoir on his land
to power his mill. The engineers found disused mine shafts but failed to seal
them properly. As a result, the water flooded from the reservoir and escaped
into the coal mine of the plaintiff. Though the defendant hired independent
contractors, the court in the matter held that the defendant built the reservoir
at his own risk and as it was a non-natural use of land, so he would be liable
for the escape of the water.
This rule states that if there is a non-natural use of the land by a person and
if that causes mischief or harm to anyone then the person would be held liable
for such harm.
Following are the essentials of this rule
Dangerous thing: there must be a dangerous thing that might cause some
mischief or harm to someone if escaped. Things like explosives, poisonous
things, electricity wire, gases, etc.
Escape: there must be an escape of that dangerous thing out of the
premises of the person.
For example, if there is an escape of a branch of a poisonous tree into
B's land from the premises of A and B's cattle happen to eat that, A would be
held liable for the harm caused. Whereas if B's cattle go into the land of A and
eat that branch of the tree, A will not be liable for the harm caused as there
was no escape of the tree into the B's land.
Non-natural use of land: there must be a non-natural use of land, it must
be a special use of the land and not the ordinary use of land.
For example: building a water reservoir for generating power is the
non-natural use of land. Storage of water for domestic use is a natural use of
There are some exceptions to this rule of strict liability
Act of God: Any event that cannot be prevented or predicted by a human
being is considered to be the act of God. It’s an irresistible act that could
not be foreseen, or if foreseen, it could not be controlled by the act of a
human being. Thus the acts like a storm, lightning, extraordinary rain, etc are
considered to be the act of God.
In the case of Nicolas v. Marsland 1876, the artificial pond in the land
of the defendant overflowed due to heavy rainfall, as a result, the water
escaped into the lands of the plaintiff damaging the walls and bridges. As the
heavy rainfall which flooded the pond could not be predicted it was considered
as an act of God so no liability could be imposed on the defendant.
Plaintiff’s fault: If the plaintiff suffers damage by his act or fault
then he cannot claim damages suffered.
In the case of Pointing v. Noakes 1849, the horse of the plaintiff
escaped into the land of the defendant and eats the poisonous tree from the land
of the defendant. As a result, the horse died, the defendant was not held liable
as there was no escape of the dangerous thing from his land.
If there would be an escape of the poisonous tree from the land of the defendant
then he would be held liable.
Consent of the plaintiff:
The Latin maxim ‘volenti non-fit injuria’ means to a willing person, no injury
is done. This says that if a person by his own will or consent put himself in a
dangerous situation cannot claim for damage caused or injury suffered.
For example – two persons living on different floors of the same building
consented to the installation of things such as water pipe, gas pipe, etc.
Nobody would be held liable if one day the gas leaked and caused damage to any
one of them. If the act could be foreseen or prevented from happening, or if
it’s the negligence of one person then that person would be held liable.
Act of the third party:
If the harm is caused due to the act of the third party, who is a stranger to
the defendant, the defendant will not be held liable. But if the defendant could
foresee the stranger's actions and prevent the damage, he is liable.
If in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher, some stranger would’ve damaged the
water reservoir and due to that, the water escaped from the defendant’s land to
the land of the plaintiff then the defendant would not be held liable for the
damages. But if the defendant could predict the damage to be caused by the act
of the stranger then he must take proper care and precautions to avoid the same.
if someone suffers any damages due to the acts of the government or state then
nobody can be held liable for the same.
Who is an independent contractor?
An Independent contractor is hired to perform a certain task and is not bound to
take direction from his employer as to how the work is to be done. He is not
under the control of his employer and works independently unlike a servant.
A took a taxi to go to his office. The taxi driver is an independent contractor.
Whereas, if A hires someone to drive his car, then the driver would be A's
In the case of an independent contractor, the employer is not liable for the
acts of the contractor unless he asks or approves to do such an act that might
cause damages or injury. But in the case of the acts of the servant the employer
The rule of absolute liability was introduced in the case of 'M.C. Mehta v.
Union of India' 1987, also known as the 'Bhopal gas tragedy'. The brief facts of
the case are that there was leakage of gases from the factory in Bhopal, which
resulted in deaths and illness of people. During an investigation, it came out
that all the safety measures were in a non-functional state.
In simple words, absolute liability is strict liability without exceptions.
This rule state that if any entity or enterprise is involved in any dangerous
thing or hazardous activity, causes any damage will be held liable. The escape
of the dangerous thing from the land of the person is not necessary under this
rule. The damage caused to anyone even within the premises due to such hazardous
activity will make the owner of the land liable.
Written By: Ruchira Mathur (New Law College, Pune)
Law Article in India
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