Understanding Strict Liability

In tort, the liability of a person generally emanates from his negligence and therefore, if the person can be proved negligent then he is held liable. But this general principle of liability does not apply to any person who keeps hazardous substances in his premises or involves in hazardous activities. In that case, the person is invariably liable for the consequences of that act irrespective of the fact whether he was negligent or not. Such a principle is an exception to the general rule of “liability for fault”, it is called “Strict liability”. The principle was first laid down in Rylands v Fletcher and the exceptions to this rule are Plaintiff’s fault, Act of God or Act of the third party. The rule of absolute liability, on the other hand, is often defined as the rule of strict liability minus the exceptions of strict liability. According to this rule, if a person is involved in any hazardous activity and any person due to any accident which occurred during the carrying out of the hazardous activity is harmed, then person carrying out such activity will be held absolutely liable. In India, this rule evolved in the case of MC Mehta v Union of India. Under these acts, the liable person may be not have been involved in the act but will still be held responsible for the damage caused due to the acts.

Strict liability was established through the case of Rylands v Fletcher[1].

In the case, the defendant(Fletcher) was an owner of a mill in Answorth. He wanted to improve water supply for his mill therefore, he employed the services of independent competent Engineers to construct a reservoir. In course of excavation work they notices some old shafts and passages to defendant’s land but did not block them. When the water was filled in the reservoir it ran through the porus shafts and flooded the plaintiff’s (Rylands) coal mines on the adjoining land. The defendant did not know about the shafts nor was he told about them by the qualified Engineers who constructed the reservoir.[2]The plaintiff sued the defendant.

The issues raised were whether the defendant can be held at risk, regardless of the fact that the act of another person led to an element get away in the plaintiff’s territory? It was exceptional that there was no carelessness or expectation on part of the defendant.

The court held that the supplication of the defendant was dismissed, and he was held at liable for all the damages in Ryland’s mine. A rule was set in this case which states that, if a man keepers in his territory any hazardous thing, he will be at first sight held liable if it escapes and harms even if he was not careless in keeping it there. Regardless that the defendant had no blame or carelessness, he was held liable since he kept some unsafe thing on his territory and the said thing has gotten away from his property and caused harm.

There are certain qualifications which are required to decide whether a liability should be strict liability or not. It is only after these qualifications are satisfied can a liability be termed as “strict liability”. These qualifications include:

  1. Dangerous thing : This essentially implies that the defendant will be at risk when the thing got away from his territory was a dangerous thing. The word “dangerous” , in the context, implies that the thing can probably do any kind of mischief when it escapes.
  2. Escape : This essentially implies that the thing causing harm should escape from the territory of the defendant, and it should not be within the reach of the defendant once it escapes.
  3. Non-natural use of land : This essentially implies that for the use to be non-natural, it must be some special use that brings with it increased danger to others. It must not be ordinary use of land or use as is proper for the benefit of community.

Strict liability also includes certain exceptions in Strict Liability which are as follows:

  1. Plaintiff’s fault : If the plaintiff has any blame or any damage is caused then the defendant would not be held liable, as the plaintiff himself interacted with the dangerous thing.
  2. Act of God : This expression can be characterized as an occasion which is not under the ability to control of any human. Such acts happen solely because of characteristic reasons and cannot be anticipated even while practicing alert. The defendant, then, would not be held liable for the misfortune if the dangerous thing got away in the view of some unexpected and common occasion which could not have been controlled in any way.
  3. The Act of Third Party : This rule additionally does not make a difference when the damage is caused by a third party i.e an outsider. The outsider implies that the individual is neither a servant of the defendant, nor the defendant has any sort of agreement with him or control over their work. But in cases, where the act of the third party could have been taken care of by the defendant, he must take care. Else, he will be considered liable.
  4. Consent of the Plaintiff : This special case take the guideline of the maxim “volenti fit injuria”. Suppose if A and B are neighbors, and they share similar water source at the place of A, and if the water escapes and makes harm to B, he cannot claim damages, as A wouldn’t be obligated for the dam.

Thus, for tortious liability, whether the wrongful act was done intentionally, unintentionally or maliciously is generally immaterial as the main consideration in deciding these cases is whether the act complained by the plaintiff constitutes violation of any of his legal right. If it constitutes an infringement of the plaintiff’s legal right then the plaintiff will succeed and held to recover damages from the defendant but if there is no infringement then the case will be dismissed. The non-liability of defendant is also an indication that the alleged violation of right against the defendant has no legal existence.


[1] Rylands v Fletcher, 330 UKHL 1 (1868)

[2] N.V Paranjape , Law of torts and Consumer protection Law and Compensation under Motor vehicles Act, Central Law Pusblisher,ed.1