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The Concept of Strict and Absolute Liability and their distinction

Concepts Of Strict Liability

The theory of strict liability can be characterised as acts or omissions that are judged accountable without the presence of mens rea (mental intent). It is a liability standard that may be applied in either a criminal or civil situation. Strict liability is a regulation that renders a person legally liable for the damage and loss caused by his or her actions and omissions, regardless of culpability, including criminal law blame.

The imposition of duty on a party without a finding of fault is known as strict liability in tort law (such as negligence or tortious intent). The claimant merely needs to show that the tort happened and that the defendant was to blame. A person is guilty and convicted in criminal law based on both actus reus (the banned conduct) and mens rea (reasonableness) (the intention to commit the prohibited act).

The criminal offence is built on the foundation of mens rea and actus reus. In circumstances of strict liability, however, the mens rea (intention) is immaterial in both cases. Even if the individual has no intention, he is guilty based on the act alone (actus reus). In this case, the criterion to show the offence does not include intent. There is also no requirement to establish negligence.

Because defendants will be convicted even if they were really unaware of one or more facts that made their conduct or omissions illegal, the responsibility is considered to be stringent. As a result, the defendants may not be responsible in any manner, i.e. there may not even be criminal negligence, the lowest degree of mens rea. These laws are used in regulatory offences imposing social conduct where a person's punishment is modest, or if society is concerned with the avoidance of damage and desires to maximise the offence's deterrent value.
The strict liability theory was established in England in the 19th century in Rylands vs. Fletcher.

The defendant was the owner of a mill, and he built a reservoir to supply water to the mill. This reservoir was built on top of historic coal mines, and the mill owner had no reason to believe that these previous excavations led to a working colliery. The water in the reservoir inundated the colliery by flowing down the ancient shafts.

Blackburn J. held the mill owner to be liable, on the principle that:
The person who for his own purposes brings on his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it in at his peril, and if he does not do so, is prima facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequences of its escape.

The House of Lords upheld the idea of liability without fault on appeal, but limited it to non-natural uses. This theory covers companies that deal with water, power, oil, hazardous gases, colliery waste, and dangerous vegetation.

Essentials Of Strict Liability:

  • For the application of the rule of strict liability, there are three main essential ingredients that should to present.
  • Some dangerous thing must be brought by a person on his land
  • The dangerous thing brought by the person must escape the premise.
  • There must be a non- natural use of the land.
  1. Some Dangerous Thing Must Be Brought By A Person On His Land

    It implies that if a person utilises dangerous objects and causes harm to another person, that person is obliged to compensate the other person for the harm he has caused. Dangerous things, according to this theory, include vast amounts of water, gas, electricity, explosives, and so on. The presence of a big amount of water was likewise declared a harmful item in the Rylands Vs. Fletcher[2] case, and the defendant was ordered to compensate the plaintiff.
  2. The Dangerous Thing Brought By The Person Must Escape The Premise

    Another important component of Strict Liability is escape, which specifies that anything that causes injury to another person must be escaped from the person's property and should not be within reach of the person. For instance, suppose A has developed some poisonous plants that might cause great injury to anyone or any animal that consumes them. If B's Sheep ate that plant because some of them had fallen on B's land, then A is obligated to recompense B for his loss; but, if B's Sheep entered A's property and ate that plant, then A is not liable for the loss.
    Read Vs. Lyons & Co. decided that where there is no escape from the defendant's property, the defendant is not responsible to pay the plaintiff for the damage he has suffered.
  3. There Must Be A Non-Natural Use Of Land

    It means that if stored water is used for a natural purpose, such as domestic purposes, a person cannot be held liable for any harm caused by it; however, if it is used for a non-natural purpose, such as in the case of Rylands Vs. Fletcher[4], the defendant used the land to build a reservoir to benefit its mill, putting others in danger, and thus he was liable for the plaintiff's loss.

Exceptions To The Rule
There are certain exceptions to this rule of liability where the defendant will be freed from all forms of liability.

Those exceptions are as follows:

  1. Plaintiff Is The Wrongdoer

    If the claimant's act or default is the only source of the injury, he has no recourse. Assume a person visits someone's property knowing there is a vicious dog on the premises that can bite him. Also, if he enters and gets bitten by a dog, he will be unable to seek compensation. This was mentioned as a defence in Rylands v Fletcher. If a person is aware that his mine may be flooded as a result of his neighbor's operations on adjacent ground, and he accepts the risk by acting in a way that makes flooding more likely, he cannot complain.

    Similarly, in Ponting v Noakes 5, the claimant's horse crossed the defendant's boundary, nibbled a poisonous tree there, and died as a result, and it was held that the claimant could recover nothing because the damage was caused by the horse's own intrusion and alternatively because no vegetation had escaped. As we can see, the object does not escape from the defendant's property, and the plaintiff was at fault for not taking sufficient care of his horse dues, which he is liable for.
  2. Statutory Authority

    By legislation, the rule in Rylands v Fletcher might be overturned. Whether this is true or not is a matter of interpreting the legislation in question. For example, in Green v Chelsea Waterworks Co6, a main belonging to a water-works company, which was authorised by Parliament to lay the main, broke without any negligence on the company's part, flooding the claimant's properties; the business was found not responsible. In Cross Electricity Co v Hydraulic Power Co7, on the other hand, when the facts were identical, the defendants were found to be responsible and had no defence against the interpretation of their legislation. The difference between the two examples is that the Hydraulic Power was authorised by legislation to supply water for industrial reasons, which meant they had permissive authority but not mandatory authority, and they were not required to maintain their mains charged with water at high pressure or at all. The Chelsea Waterworks Co. was permitted by laws to lay mains and was required by law to provide a continuous supply of water; as a result, damage was an unavoidable consequence.
  3. Act Of Third Party

    According to this, if injury is produced by a stranger or third party, and there is no negligence on the part of either the plaintiff or defendant, but the loss occurs as a result of the stranger's act, the defendant is not accountable. The term "stranger" or "third person" does not include the defendant's servants, agents, or other employees.
  4. Consent Of The Plaintiff

    This exception states that if a person is aware of the potential for damage during a particular act and yet performs that conduct, he is responsible for his own actions. He can't hold anyone else responsible for that behaviour unless that person was irresponsible in some way and he was unaware of it. Volenti Non Fit Injuria is another name for this.
  5. Vis Major Or Act Of God

    It is another exemption that declares that if the loss is caused by an act of God, such as a flood, earthquake, or other natural calamity, no one will be held responsible because these events are beyond human control. The Act of God defence applies when the escape is induced directly by natural forces without human interference under "circumstances that no human foresight can give and of which human wisdom is not obligated to perceive the likelihood." The most crucial aspect of this defence is that the object escaped without the defendant's knowledge, and that the breakout was so unusual that no one could have predicted it.

Concept Of Absolute Liability

With the passage of time, the renowned rule of strict liability established by Blackburn J. in Rylands v. Fletcher 8 has shown to be unsuccessful in combating the unsafe use of one's property or an enterprise that produces chemicals or wastes harmful to public health. The pre-requisites for establishing a responsibility under the strict liability principle, such as the non-natural use of land, the use of a dangerous substance, and the element of escape, presented 9 significant loopholes for businesses to avoid liability under the Rylands v. Fletcher 9 rule.
Furthermore, the exclusions allowed under the regulation (and reiterated by the Supreme Court of India in MC Mehta v. Union of India) provide commercial businesses sufficient chance to avoid accountability.

In MC Mehta v. Union of India, the Supreme Court of India established a more rigorous strict liability test than the Rylands v. Fletcher norm. In this case, the leaking of Oleum gas from one of Shriram Industries' operations in Delhi caused significant damage. The court held that, in light of the needs and demands of a modern society with advanced scientific knowledge and technology, where it was necessary to carry out inherently dangerous or hazardous industry for the sake of a development programme, a new rule needed to be established to adequately address the problems that arise in a highly industrialised economy.

This new rule had to be based on the English law of strict liability , but it had to be even stricter, such that no company engaged in an intrinsically risky or hazardous activity could escape culpability, regardless of whether or not carelessness was involved.

The court also pointed out that the duty owed by such an enterprise to the society is absolute and non-delegable and that the enterprise cannot escape liability by showing that it had taken all reasonable care and there was no negligence on its part.

Rylands v. Fletcher established a rule requiring the defendant's non-natural use of land and the escape from his land of the object that causes harm. However, the decision in MC Mehta v. Union of India is not contingent on any of these factors. The new rule must be used whenever the defendant is engaged in a hazardous or intrinsically dangerous activity and injury is caused to anybody as a consequence of an accident while doing such a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity.

The rule in Rylands v. Fletcher will not apply to situations of injury to people on the premises since the rule requires the object that produces the harm to leave the premises. The new regulation makes no distinction between those within and outside the premises where the enterprise is carried on, because escape of the object causing injury from the premises is not a requirement for the law's applicability.

Furthermore, the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher, while strict in the sense that it is not contingent on the defendant's negligence and thus similar to the new rule, is not absolute because it is subject to many exceptions, whereas the new rule in Mehta's case is not only strict but absolute and has no exceptions.

Another significant difference between the two is in the amount of damages awarded. Ordinary or compensatory damages will be awarded if the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher applies; however, exemplary damages may be awarded where the rule in MC Mehta's case applies, and the larger and more profitable the company, the greater the amount of compensation due by it.

Dstinction Between Strict And Absolute Liability

The major differences between strict and absolute liability are as follows:
  1. In absolute liability, the destruction is mass destruction, but in strict liability, the destruction is restricted to a certain level.
  2. In absolute liability, there is no defence available for the defendant, whereas in strict liability, the defendant can claim defences such as act of god, plaintiff is the wrongdoer, third party interventions etc
  3. In absolute liability, the compensation paid to the plaintiff is determined on the basis of the the financial stability of the company causing the action that gives rise to absolute liability. In strict liability however, the compensation is determined by the nature and the amount of damage caused.
  4. In absolute liability, it doesn't really matter whether the harmful substance escapes. Even if any harm is caused inside the premise, the defendant will be held liable. However in the case of strict liability, escape of the harmful substance is an essential element.

With the reversal of the burden of evidence, the rule of strict liability may have served well in previous ages, but with the modernization of society and increased industrialisation, a change in principle was required. The strict liability exceptions would become justifications for businesses to be reckless in exercising reasonable care.

Absolute liability is equivalent to strict liability, except since it has no exceptions, it prevents exploitation and cruelty to the suffering party. There was an urgent and intrinsic need for such a theory since the law of strict liability, which was developed over two centuries earlier, cannot be used as the primary principle to account for reimbursement because it was formulated at a time when technical progress was only in its early stages in contrast to today's overall development.

Both the strict and absolute liability principles deal with the circumstance when something odd is introduced onto the defendant's territory, and if it escapes and causes harm to the plaintiff, the defendant is held accountable. In the case of M.C Mehta v. Union of India, the Supreme Court of India established a new strict liability rule. This new rule is more stringent than the one established in Ryland v. Fletcher.

This is referred to as the absolute liability rule. The court determined that the 19th-century rule of Ryland v. Fletcher did not adequately address the needs of modern industrial society with highly developed scientific knowledge and technology where hazardous or inherently dangerous industries existed, and that a new rule not yet recognised by law was required to adequately address the problem arising in a highly industrialised economy.


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