Doctrine of strict liability & exceptions (Rylands vs Fletcher)
The principle of strict liability states that any person who holds dangerous substances in his or her premises shall be held liable if it escapes the premises and causes any harm. This concept came into being after the case of Rylands vs. Fletcher, 1868.
As per the facts, F had a mill on his property, and to power it, he had constructed a reservoir on his land. Due to some accident, the water from the reservoir flooded the coal mine of R, his neighbor. Subsequently, R filed a suit against F. The court held that the reservoir was built on the risk of the defendant and during its operation, if any accident happens then the defendant would be held liable, even if he was not negligent in his actions, for the accident and escape of the material and the resultant damage caused.
Thus, from the aforementioned case, we can point out some essentials of the case.
- Bringing and accumulating on the Defendant’s land.
- Something likely to cause mischief if it escapes.
- Non-natural use of the land by Defendant. There is no specific definition of the Natural use of land. It can depend and vary from place to place and from time to time.
- Escape of the material and foreseeable damage has taken place.
- Irrespective of the defendant’s degree of care.
It is called NO-FAULT LIABILITY.
ESSENTIALS OF STRICT LIABILITY
- HAZARDOUS SUBSTANCE:
- NON-NATURAL USE OF LAND
- The liability only arises in the case where the defendant has a dangerous substance on the land. For enforcing Strict Liability, a thing can be hazardous if it escapes can lead to mischief or damage. Stuff like bombs, growing poisonous trees, etc.
- Another condition to be fulfilled is the escape of the substance from the defendant’s premises. However, if the damage is caused but the substance is still within the premises, then there’s no strict liability.
- For instance, if a person has grown poisonous trees on his field, but the poisonous fruits of the trees fell on the neighbor’s garden, eating which he died. Here, the defendant would be liable for the consequent losses/damages.
- Although, in another case, if the neighbor had entered the defendant’s field for eating the poisonous apples. Then there would be no liability of the defendant.
NON-NATURAL USE OF LAND:
- There is yet another prerequisite for the strict liability to be applicable. There should be a non-natural use of the defendant’s land. In the above-mentioned case of Rylands vs. Fletcher, the construction of the reservoir was a non-natural use of land, due to which the reservoir had burst and damaged Fletcher’s mine. A water reservoir was considered to be a non-natural use of land in a coal mining area, but not in an arid state.
- For example, in the case of Tesa Tape Asia Pacific Pte Ltd v Wing Seng Logistics Pte Ltd  SGHC 73, where the defendant put containers on his field which was not meant for this purpose and its sudden collapse resulted in damages to the property of the claimant, this was considered a non-natural use of land.
These three requirements should be met at the same time in order to constitute strict liability.
EXCEPTIONS TO THE CONCEPT OF STRICT LIABILITY
There are certain exceptions to the concept of strict liability:
- PLAINTIFF’S FAULT/ SENSITIVENESS
- ACT OF GOD
- ACT OF THIRD PARTY
- CONSENT OF THE PLAINTIFF
- STATUTORY AUTHORITY
PLAINTIFF’S FAULT/ SENSITIVENESS
- If the plaintiff was at fault and thus damage is caused, then the defendant would not be held liable because the plaintiff had himself came in the contact with the hazardous thing.
- As in the case of EASTERN AND SOUTH AFRICAN TELEGRAPH CO. LTD. VS. CAPETOWN TRAMWAYS CO. (1902), it was held that the damage to the plaintiff’s property was caused not by the defendant’s negligence but by the unusual sensitiveness of the plaintiff’s property. Hence, no liability arose on the part of the defendant in the present case.
ACT OF GOD
- The term “act of God” can be interpreted as an occurrence that is beyond any control of human beings. Such happenings are entirely natural and take place without any intervention from the human agency. They are impossible to be avoided even after being prudent and cautious. The defendant would not be held liable for the damage caused if the hazardous thing escapes due to such unforeseeable and unavoidable natural events.
ACT OF THIRD PARTY
- The concept also doesn’t apply when the damage is caused by the acts of a third party. Third-party means that the individual is neither the servant of the defendant nor has any contract with or influence over the work of the defendant. However, in cases where the act of a third party can be foreseen, it is assumed that the defendant should have taken care of it, otherwise he can be held accountable.
- In the case of BOX vs. JUBB, the court held that the defendant would not be held liable for the damage caused to the claimant’s land, as the reservoir overflowed because a third party emptied his drain through the defendant’s reservoir.
CONSENT OF THE PLAINTIFF
- This exception is based on the principle of volenti non-fit injuria, which states that if a person puts himself in a circumstance where harm may result, being well aware of the danger, they may not be able to make a claim against the party in error.
- For instance, if A has a bike with broken breaks and B is well aware of this fact but still rides it. In an accident, both suffer an injury but B can’t sue A for damages as he consented to the foreseeable dangers.
- According to it, a person would not be held liable for the damages which arise by the acts approved by the legislature. However, the statute itself may provide for compensation to the aggrieved party.
- In the case of GREEN vs. CHELSEA WATERWORKS CO. 70L(1984), a principle belonging to the company, which was authorized by the parliament to lay the main, burst without negligence of the company and flooded the claimant’s premises; the company wasn’t held liable.
Author: SHOBHIT ARORA,
CHRIST UNIVERSITY 1st year student