Strict and absolute liability by VIVEK JAMWAL

Strict and absolute liability

Absolute Liability
Definition: The rule of law is that the person who, for his own purpose, 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 consequence of its escape – Blackburn, J.

Absolute Liability
Definition: If an industry or enterprise is engaged in some inherently dangerous activity from which it is deriving commercial gain and that activity is capable of causing catastrophic damage then the industry officials are absolutely liable to pay compensation to the aggrieved parties. The industry cannot plead that all safety measures were taken care of by them and that there was negligence on their part. They will not be allowed any exceptions neither can they take up any defence like that of ‘Act of God’ or ‘Act of Stranger’.

Strict Liability
The earlier stated definition remains half done if the following terms are not emphasized upon:-
Ø Dangerous Thing: According to the above mentioned rule, the liability of escape of a thing from a person’s land will arise only when the thing or substance collected is a dangerous thing i.e. a thing which is likely to cause mischief or damage to other people in person or their property on its escape. In various torts cases filed worldwide, the ones involving the doctrine of strict liability have held “large body of water, gas, electricity, vibrations, yew trees, sewage, flag-pole, explosives, noxious fumes, rusty wires, etc. as dangerous things.

Ø Escape: The thing that has caused damage or mischief must ‘escape’ from the area under the occupation and control of the defendant. This can be better explained by bringing in two examples-

1. Case- Crowhurst vs.Amersham Burial Board, (1878) 4 Ex. D. 5; Cheater vs. Cater, (1908) 1 K.B. 247:-
If the branches of a poisonous tree that is planted on the defendant’s land spreads out to the neighbouring plaintiff’s land, this amounts to the escape of that dangerous, poisonous thing from the boundaries or control of the defendant and onto the plaintiff’s land. Now, the issue arises, if the cattle of the plaintiff nibbles on these leaves, then the defendant will be held liable under the mentioned rule even when nothing was done intentionally on his part.

2. Case- Read vs. Lyons and Co., (1947) A.C. 156:-
The plaintiff worked as an employee in the defendant’s shell manufacturing company, while she was on duty within the premises of the company, a shell being manufactured there exploded due to which the plaintiff suffered injuries. A case was filed against the defendant company but the court let off the defendant giving the verdict that strict liability is not applicable here as the explosion took place within the defendant’s premises, the concept of escape of a dangerous thing like the shell from the boundaries of the defendant is missing here. Also negligence on the part of the defendant could not be proved.


Ø Non-natural use of land: Water collected on land for domestic purposes does not amount to non-natural use of land but storing it in huge quantity like that in a reservoir amounts to non-natural use of the land (Rylands vs. Fletcher). This distinction between natural and non-natural use of land can be made possible by its adjustment to existing social conditions. Growing of trees is held natural use of land but if the defendant is found to grow trees of poisonous nature on his land, then it is non-natural use of the land. If the land has been used naturally yet a conflict has risen between the defendant and the plaintiff, owing to natural use of land, the court will not hold the defendant liable.

Ø Mischief: To make the defendant liable under the doctrine of strict liability, the plaintiff needs to prove that the defendant made non-natural use of his land and escape of the dangerous thing caused mischief/damage to him. The resultant damage needs to be shown by the plaintiff after successfully proving that unnatural use of the land was done by the defendant.

Case:- In Charing Cross Electric Supply Co. vs. Hydraulic Power Co. (1914) 3 KB 772, the defendants’ duty was to supply water for industrial works but they were unable to keep their mains charged with the minimum required pressure which led to the bursting of the pipe line at four different places resulting in heavy damage to the plaintiff which was proved with evidence. The defendants’ were held liable in spite of no fault of theirs.

Brief Summary: Essentials for a tort to be held under the Doctrine of Strict Liability
a) Non-natural use of land must have taken place.
b) Escape of a dangerous thing from that land on which it was kept must have taken place.
c) The dangerous thing must have caused mischief.

A few instances where this rule is applicable:-
a) Activities involving non-natural use of land.
b) Activities involving dangerous operations such as blasting, mining, etc.
c) Liability arising out of keeping or taming dangerous animals.
d) Liability for dangerous structures e.g. building, ship, rail, etc.
e) Liability for dangerous chattels such as crackers, explosives, petrol, etc.

Inception of this rule: The Strict Liability principle is also called as ‘No Fault Liability’. This is contradictory to the general principle of negligence in torts where a person can be held liable for commission of a tort only when the plaintiff can prove negligence on his part and the defendant himself is unable to disprove it. In the cases that I will now mention, the onus of being negligent can be ignored. In spite of all due care taken by the defendant, he will invariably be held for the consequences of the damages caused to any person outside of the boundary of the defendant’s land by any hazardous thing that he maintained on the same stretch of land i.e. in spite of no intentional or unintentional fault of his, the defendant can be held liable hence, explaining the term ‘No Fault Liability’.

This principle was first applied in the House of Lords in respect to the case ‘Rylands vs. Fletcher, (1868)’.

Rylands vs. Fletcher, 1868: The defendant (Fletcher) an owner of a mill in Answorth with an aim to improve water supply for his mill employed independent and efficient engineers for the construction of a reservoir. During their excavation of the ground underneath, they came across some shafts and passages but chose not to block them. Post construction of the reservoir when they filled it with water, all the water flowed through the unblocked old shafts and passages to the plaintiff’s (Rylands) coal mines on the adjoining land and inundated them completely. The engineers kept the defendant in the dark about the occurrence of these incidents. On a suit filed before the court by the plaintiff against the defendant, the court though ruled out negligence on the defendant’s part but held him liable under the rule of Strict Liability. Any amount of carefulness on his part is not going to save him where his liability falls under the scope of ‘No Fault Liability’.

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