Strict and Absolute Liability
The principle of strict liability evolved in the case of Rylands v Fletcher. In the year 1868, the principle of strict liability states that any person who keeps hazardous substances on his premises will be held responsible if such substances escape the premises and cause any damage. Going into the facts of the case, F had a mill on his land, and to power the mill, F built a reservoir on his land. Due to some accident, the water from the reservoir flooded the coal mines owned by R. Subsequently, R filed a suit against F. The Court held that the defendant built the reservoir at his risk, and in course of it if any accident happens then the defendant will be liable for the accident and escape of the material.
Going by the principle laid in this case, it can be said that if a person brings on his land and keeps some dangerous thing and such a thing is likely to cause some damage if it escapes then such person will be answerable for the damage caused. The person from whose property such substance escaped will be held accountable even when he hasn’t been negligent in keeping the substance in his premises. The liability is imposed on him not because there is any negligence on his part, but the substance kept on his premises is hazardous and dangerous. Based on this judicial pronouncement, the concept of strict liability came into being. There are some essential conditions that should be fulfilled to categorize a liability under the head of strict liability.
Essentials of Strict Liability
Dangerous Substances: The defendant will be held strictly liable only if a “dangerous” substance escapes from his premises.To impose strict liability, a dangerous substance can be defined as any substance which will cause some mischief or harm if it escapes. Things like explosives, toxic gasses, electricity, etc. can be termed as dangerous things.
Escape: One more essential condition to make the defendant strictly liable is that the material should escape from the premises and shouldn’t be within the reach of the defendant after its escape. For instance, the defendant has some poisonous plant on his property. Leaves from the plant enter the property of the plaintiff and are eaten by his cattle, which as a result die. The defendant will be liable for the loss. But on the other hand, if the cattle belonging to the plaintiff enter the premises of the defendant and eats the poisonous leaves and die, the defendant would not be liable. In the judicial pronouncement of Reads v. Lyons & Co. it was held that if there is no escape, the defendant cannot be held liable.
Non-natural Use: To constitute a strict liability, there should be a non-natural use of the land. In the case of Rylands v. Fletcher, the water collected in the reservoir was considered to be a non-natural use of the land. Storage of water for domestic use is considered to be natural use. But storing water to energize a mill was considered non-natural by the Court. When the term “non-natural” is to be considered, it should be kept in mind that there must be some special use that increases the danger to others. Supply of cooking gas through the pipeline, electric wiring in a house, etc. is considered to be the natural use of land. For instance, if the defendant lights up a fire in his fireplace and a spark escape and causes a fire, the defendant will not be held liable as it was a natural use of the land.
These three condition needs to be satisfied simultaneously to constitute a strict liability.
The exceptions to the Rule of Strict Liability
There are certain exceptions to the rule of strict liability, which are-
Plaintiff’s Fault: If the plaintiff is at fault and any damage is caused, the defendant wouldn’t be held liable, as the plaintiff himself came in contact with the dangerous thing. In the judicial pronouncement of Ponting v Noakes, the plaintiff’s horse died after it entered the property of the defendant and ate some poisonous leaves. The Court held that it was a wrongful intrusion, and the defendant was not to be held strictly liable for such loss.
Act of God: The phrase “act of God” can be defined as an event that is beyond the control of any human agency. Such acts happen exclusively due to natural reasons and cannot be prevented even while exercising caution and foresight. The defendant wouldn’t be liable for the loss if the dangerous substance escaped because of some unforeseen and natural event that couldn’t have been controlled in any manner.
Act of the Third Party: The rule also doesn’t apply when the damage is caused due to the act of a third party. The third-party means that the person is neither the servant of the defendant nor the defendant has any contract with them or control over their work. But where the acts of the third party can be foreseen, the defendant must take due care. Otherwise, he will be held responsible. For instance, in the case of Box v Jubb, where the reservoir of the defendant overflowed because a third party emptied his drain through the defendant’s reservoir, the Court held that the defendant wouldn’t be liable.
Consent of Plaintiff: This exception follows the principle of violenti non fit injuria. For instance, if A and B are neighbours, and they share the same water source which is situated on the land of A, and if the water escapes and causes damage to B, he can’t claim damages, as A wouldn’t be liable for the damage.
The rule of absolute liability, in simple words, can be defined as the rule of strict liability minus the exceptions. In India, the rule of absolute liability evolved in the case of MC Mehta v Union of India. This is one of the most landmark judgments which relates to the concept of absolute liability.
The facts of the case are that some oleum gas leaked in a particular area in Delhi from the industry. Due to the leakage, many people were affected. The Apex Court then evolved the rule of absolute liability on the rule of strict liability and stated that the defendant would be liable for the damage caused without considering the exceptions to the strict liability rule.
According to the rule of absolute liability, if any person is engaged in an inherently dangerous or hazardous activity, and if any harm is caused to any person due to an accident that occurred during carrying out such inherently dangerous and hazardous activity, then the person who is carrying out such activity will be held absolutely liable. The exception to the strict liability rule also wouldn’t be considered. The rule laid down in the case of MC Mehta v UOI was also followed by the Supreme Court while deciding the case of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy case. To ensure that victims of such accidents get quick relief through insurance, the Indian Legislature passed the Public Liability Insurance Act in the year 1991.
The author is a Fifth-year Law Student pursuing B.A. LL.B from the Central University of Kashmir.