Strict Liability: The “No fault liability” concept, embodied in the rules of Strict and Absolute Liability, means that sometimes a person can be held responsible for a wrongdoing even if they didn’t intend or act negligently. This principle, often referred to as the Rule in Rylands v Fletcher, was established by the House of Lords. In the Rylands v Fletcher case, the defendant hired independent contractors to build a reservoir for his mill.
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In 1868, a groundbreaking legal case, Rylands v Fletcher, laid the foundation for the principle of strict liability. Simply put, this principle holds that if someone stores hazardous substances on their property and those substances accidentally escape, causing damage, that person is held responsible. Let’s delve into the case details: Mr. Fletcher had a mill and constructed a reservoir on his land to power it. Unfortunately, a mishap led to water flooding Mr. Rylands’ coal mines.
Mr. Rylands took legal action, and the court ruled that since Mr. Fletcher built the reservoir at his own risk, he was liable for any accidents or material escapes. According to this principle, if someone keeps dangerous substances on their property, they are accountable for any harm caused, regardless of negligence. Strict liability doesn’t hinge on the individual’s negligence but rather on the inherently hazardous nature of the substance. This legal concept emerged from the court’s decision, establishing specific conditions for categorizing liability under strict liability.
Essentials of Strict Liability
The defendant is only held responsible if something harmful escapes from their property. A “dangerous substance” is anything that can cause trouble or harm if it gets out, like explosives, toxic gases, or electricity. For strict liability to apply, this substance must escape and be beyond the defendant’s control afterward.
Example: If a poisonous plant on the defendant’s property harms the plaintiff’s cattle after its leaves escape, the defendant is liable. However, if the plaintiff’s cattle enter the defendant’s property and eat the poisonous leaves, the defendant isn’t held responsible.
The substance causing harm must physically get out of the defendant’s property. If there’s no escape, the defendant can’t be held strictly liable.
Example: In Reads v. Lyons & Co., the court ruled that without an escape, the defendant isn’t liable for the harm caused.
Strict liability applies when the land is used in a way that’s not usual or natural. The court considers activities that increase the risk to others as “non-natural.” Everyday uses like storing water for domestic use are natural, but specific uses that heighten the danger are non-natural.
Example: In Rylands v. Fletcher, storing water to power a mill was deemed non-natural, leading to strict liability. On the other hand, activities like using cooking gas or having electric wiring in a house are seen as natural land uses.
Fireplace Example: If a defendant lights a fire in their fireplace and a spark causes a fire, they won’t be held liable because it’s considered a natural use of the land.
Exception to the Rule of Strict Liability
There are certain exceptions to the rule of strict liability, which are-
- If the person who is making a legal complaint (plaintiff) is responsible for the problem and any harm that occurs, the person being accused (defendant) won’t be held responsible. This is because the plaintiff willingly encountered the danger.
- In a legal case called Ponting v Noakes, for example, the plaintiff’s horse died after entering the defendant’s property and eating some poisonous leaves. The court decided that this was an improper intrusion, and the defendant wasn’t strictly responsible for the loss.
Act of God:
- The term “Act of God” refers to events that are beyond human control and occur solely due to natural reasons. In such cases, where unforeseen and natural events lead to the escape of a dangerous substance, the defendant is not held liable. These are events that couldn’t have been prevented even with caution and foresight.
Act of the Third Party:
- The rule doesn’t apply when damage is caused by the actions of someone not involved in the case (a third party). This third party is neither an employee of the defendant nor under any contract or control of the defendant. However, if the defendant could have foreseen the actions of the third party, they must take appropriate care, or they will be held responsible.
- For example, in the case of Box v Jubb, the defendant’s reservoir overflowed because a third party emptied their drain into the defendant’s reservoir. The court ruled that the defendant wasn’t liable in this situation.
Consent of the Plaintiff:
- This exception follows the principle that harm is not done to those who consent to it (violenti non fit injuria).
- For instance, if neighbors A and B share a water source on A’s land and damage occurs to B’s property due to water escaping, B cannot claim damages. This is because A is not liable for the harm since they both share the water source and B has consented to the situation.
In simpler terms, the rule of absolute liability is like strict liability without any escape clauses. In India, this legal principle took shape in the MC Mehta v Union of India case, a pivotal judgment that delves into the concept of absolute liability.
In Delhi, there was a leak of oleum gas from an industry, causing harm to many people. The top court, in response, introduced the rule of absolute liability, building upon the strict liability concept. Essentially, it means that if someone is involved in a dangerous activity, and harm occurs to others due to accidents during this activity, that person is held completely responsible. No exceptions to the strict liability rule are considered.
According to this rule, if you’re engaged in something inherently risky, and an accident during that activity harms someone, you’re on the hook, no questions asked. This legal precedent from the MC Mehta case was also applied in the Bhopal Gas Tragedy case by the Supreme Court. To make sure that victims of such incidents can swiftly receive compensation through insurance, the Indian Legislature enacted the Public Liability Insurance Act in 1991.
Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991
This law was created to quickly help folks who’ve been caught up in accidents involving dangerous substances. The main goal of the law is to set up a fund that provides immediate support for those affected. According to the law, anyone involved in activities that are naturally risky or involve hazardous materials must have insurance. This insurance is crucial to compensate victims in case an accident occurs and causes harm.
The law follows the idea of “no fault liability,” meaning that those responsible for inherently dangerous substances are strictly liable for any harm caused. This includes substances that can seriously hurt people, animals, plants, property, or the environment due to their properties or handling. If a substance is dangerous by nature or becomes hazardous during handling, the person responsible is absolutely liable for any consequences.
Strict liability and absolute liability are like exceptions in legal terms, deviating from the usual principle that a person is only held responsible when at fault. The unique feature of these rules is the concept of “no-fault liability,” where a person can be held accountable even without demonstrating fault. In cases of strict liability, there are a few exceptions that may exempt the defendant from liability, but absolute liability provides no such escape routes. Under the absolute liability rule, the defendant is held responsible without exception, irrespective of whether they committed the act or not. It’s a legal concept that highlights responsibility even in the absence of fault.
Read Also: Vicarious Liability in Law of Torts