Liability without fault / No-fault liability – Law of torts – (Strict and Absolute liability)
The rule of strict liability says that the defendant is liable even though there is no intention or negligence on the part of the defendant. The law says that sometimes the defendant is liable under strict liability if he is involved in any dangerous or hazardous activities and he must compensate the plaintiff for the damage caused to him irrespective of any carelessness on his part. The basis to determine the strict liability is whether the consequences of the act done are foreseeable or not. If the consequences are foreseeable then the defendant is strictly liable and if the consequences are not foreseeable then the defendant may not be liable for his act.
The rule of strict liability was laid down in the case of “Rylands v Fletcher”. The rule of strict liability is not the same as a strict liability because the rule of strict liability has various exceptions to it.
Landmark case – Rylands v Fletcher
In this case, the defendant Rylands got a reservoir constructed through an independent contractor over his land for providing water supply to his mill. When the reservoir was filled the excess water from the reservoir was flown down towards the plaintiff Fletchers’ land which had a coal mine on it causing the damage. Also, there was some negligence on the part of the independent contractor who did not seal the mine shaft in a proper manner which they hadcome across during the construction of the plaintiff’s reservoir and it was through those shafts that the water flooded the plaintiff’s coal mine.
The court held that as the reservoir was built by the independent contractor the defendant Rylands could not be held vicariously liable for their negligence but he was held strictly liable because the defendant in bringing the water into the reservoir was bound to keep it at his peril. This he was held liable.
The rule of strict liability in the case of Ryland v Fletcher is based on mainly three conditions.
These are: –
- There should be a dangerous thing
- The dangerous thing must escape
- There should be non-natural use of land
There should be a dangerous thing
The first condition says that the defendant must bring any dangerous thing in order to be liable for under strict liability. The dangerous thing should have the nature to do any mischief if it escapes. The rule is applicable to electricity, gas, water, explosives, noxious fumes, damage wires, etc.
The dangerous thing must escape
The second condition to qualify for strict liability is that the dangerous thing must escape the area outside the control of the defendant. For example, if someone has a ferocious dog as his pet and if the dog escapes and causes harm to any other person then the defendant would be liable under the rule.
There should be non-natural use of land
For the use of non-natural use of land, the use must be in some extraordinary way for example keeping 100 liquid petroleum gas cylinders on your land will qualify under non-natural use of your land because it is dangerous and if any mischief happens it will cause huge damage to others.
Defenses to the rule of strict liability
- Plaintiff’s own default
- Act of god
- Act of the third party
- Consent of the plaintiff
- Statutory authority
Plaintiffs own fault
No action can be taken for the injury if the injury caused to the plaintiff by his own fault.
Act of god
If the injury caused to the plaintiff is the result of any natural disaster like flood, lightning, earthquake, etc. then the defense of act of god can be taken.
Act of the third party
If the harm has been caused due to the wrongful act of any stranger who is neither defendant nor his agent or servant and the defendant doesn’t have any control over his actions then the defense of act of the third party can be pleaded.
Consent of the plaintiff
In the case of volenti non-fit injuria if the plaintiff has consented to the injury caused to him then this defense can be used by the defendant to evade the liability.
No action can arise for the actions which are authorized by the legislature if it were done without any malicious intent or negligent act.
The rule of absolute liability was given by the supreme court of India in the case of M.C Mehta v Union of India. This rule is not even recognized by the English courts. This rule was invented by the Indian supreme court about the rule of strict liability laid down in the case of Rylands v Fletcher. The main difference between strict and absolute liability is that strict liability has some exceptions or defenses to it, but absolute liability doesn’t have any exceptions.
Absolute liability is also called stricter than strict liability which says that when an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and harm results to anyone on account of an accident in the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity resulting. If a company is dealing with gaseous products and if the gas leaks and causes harm to another person then the company will be strictly and absolutely liable for the damage caused.
The rule of absolute liability is based on two condition
- If the enterprise is permitted to carry on a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity for its profit the law must presume that such permission is conditional on the enterprise absorbing the cost of any accident arising on account of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity as an appropriate item of its overheads. Since the person harmed would not be in a position to isolate the process of operation from the hazardous preparation of substance that caused harm, the enterprise must be held strictly liable for causing such harm as part of the social cost for carrying on the hazardous activities.
- The enterprise alone has the resources to discover and guard against hazardous or dangers and to provide warning against potential hazards.
Author: Rohit Soni,
NMIMS Kirit P Mehta School of Law, First year student