Strict Liability

The strict liability principle is an extremely important concept under the law of torts. The basis of this principle basically lies in the inherent harm that some activities can inflict. For example, leaking of poisonous gasses, as it happened in the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, will attract this rule.

The underlying principle of compensation in torts generally depends on the extent of precautions a person takes. Hence, if he takes abundant precautions to prevent some harm, the law may exempt him from paying damages. This principle, however, does not apply to strict liability.

Under the strict liability rule, the law makes people pay compensation for damages even if they are not at fault. In other words, people have to pay compensation to victims even if they took all the necessary precautions. In fact, permissions allowing such activities often include this principle as a pre-condition.

Rylands v. Fletcher

The rule of strict liability originates from the famous English case of Rylands v. Fletcher. According to the facts of this case, the defendant owned a mill and wanted to improve its water supply. For this purpose, he employed a firm of reputed engineers to construct a reservoir nearby.

The problem occurred when the reservoir was so full one day that the water from it started over-flowing. The water flowed with so much force that it entered the plaintiff’s mine and damaged everything.

The engineers, who were independent contractors of the defendant, were clearly at fault. This is because they were negligent in constructing the reservoir. This is exactly what the defendant also said for avoiding his liability.

The court, however, disagreed and explained the strict liability rule. It said that when somebody keeps something on his property for his benefit, it should not escape and affect others. In case it so escapes, the owner of that thing must compensate the victim even if he was not negligent.

Exceptions to Strict Liability

The strict liability rule does not apply in cases involving the following exceptions:

1) 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. For example, tsunamis, tornadoes, earthquakes, extraordinary rainfall, etc. are acts of God. Any damage that occurs due to these acts does not attract strict liability.

2) Wrongful act of a third party

Sometimes, the involvement of third parties may be the cause of damages. For example, renovation work in one flat may cause some nuisance to another flat. Here, the tenant affected by the nuisance cannot sue his landlord. He can only sue the person renovating the other flat.

3) Plaintiff’s own fault

In several instances, the plaintiff may himself be at fault for the damage he suffers. In such cases, he cannot shift liability on some other person regardless of how much he suffers.

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