Strict and Absolute Liability Explained
Strict liability and absolute liability function under the ‘no-fault liability’ principle, which says that if a person/enterprise brings any hazardous/dangerous substance of non-natural use in its premises and if that substance escapes and does any mischief, then whatever loss the other party suffers that person/enterprise shall be made liable for it.

Rule of Strict Liability

The rule of strict liability was propounded in 1868 in Ryland vs Fletcher.

Ryland vs Fletcher case

Facts of the case

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  • Rylands and Fletcher lived in a neighbourhood.
  • Rylands had mines in his land, while Fletcher had a mill on his land.
  • Fletcher required a huge amount of energy to run the mill, so he decided to construct a reservoir.
  • To construct the reservoir, independent contractors and engineers were appointed by Fletcher.
  • No attention was paid to mine shafts while constructing the reservoir.
  • When the reservoir was ready and the water was filled, the water reached the mines of Rylands through the mine shafts, due to which he suffered heavy losses and sued Fletcher for the same.
  • Fletcher defended by stating that the negligence was by independent contractors and engineers.
  • In the judgement delivered by the House of Lords, Fletcher was held liable for the entire loss suffered by Rylands.

Principle of no-fault liability

According to the rule, if any person brings any dangerous thing on his land for non-natural use and that dangerous thing has the ability to escape on its own and causes harm, such person shall be liable for it even though there was no negligence on his part. This is known as the rule of strict liability. Such things may be any harmful gas, water, or chemicals.

Essential of strict liability

The three essential points regarding strict liability are:

  1. Some dangerous thing must have been brought on one’s land.
  2. There must be non-natural use of land.
  3. The dangerous thing bought must escape and cause damage.

Exception to rule of strict liability

Here are the five exceptions to the rule of strict liability.

1. Plaintiff’s own fault

The classic example would be Ponting vs Noakes. In this case, the plaintiff’s horse intruded into the defendant’s land and consumed the leaves of some wild tree and died after that. The defendant was not held liable as the damage would not have occurred if the plaintiff’s horse had not intruded on the defendant’s land. The rule of strict liability would not apply as there was no escape.

2. Act of God

Any natural event which is not predictable, controllable or preventable, damage caused by such event cannot be held liable for. In Nicholas vs Marsland 1876, due to heavy rainfall defendant’s artificial lake was flooded, due to which the plaintiff’s four bridges washed away. The plaintiff brought an action to recover the damages. It was held that the defendant was not liable as the accident was caused by an act of God.

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3. Volenti non-fit injuria / mutual benefit

If two persons with common consent bring any non-natural thing for mutual benefit and such thing causes damage, either of them cannot claim damages from each other.

Related: What Is Volenti Non-Fit Injuria Under the Law of Torts?

4. Act of stranger

If any damage has been caused due to the act of any stranger on whom the defendant had no control, the defendant will not be liable under this rule.

5. Statutory authority

An act done under the authority of a statute is a defence to an action for tort.

Rule of Absolute Liability

The rule of absolute liability was laid down in MC Mehta vs Union of India.

MC Mehta case

Facts of the case

  • A company named Union Carbide set up a plant in Bhopal.
  • The plant manufactured pesticide and such products.
  • On the night of 2nd December 1984, the plant leaked 40 tons of dangerous gas (methyl isocyanate).
  • The adjoining area around the plant became a gas chamber because of which 3000 people died, and various others were injured.
  • During the investigation, it was found that all the safety systems of the plant were non-functional.
  • The Supreme Court decided not to follow the rule of strict liability as this would result in such industries escaping the liability for the damage caused and lost lives.

Strict liability is a concept of the 18th century. With the passage of time and evolving power of science, the rule of absolute liability was for the first time applied in the case of MC Mehta vs Union of India, also known as the Oleum Gas Leak case.

The principle laid down in the MC Mehta case by Supreme Court is as follows:

“Where 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 is strictly and absolutely liable to compensate all those who are affected by the accident, and such liability is not subject to any of the exceptions which operate vis-à-vis the tortious principle of strict liability under the rule in Rylands vs Fletcher.”

Difference Between Strict Liability and Absolute Liability

  1. In strict liability, any person can be made liable, whereas, in absolute liability, only an enterprise can be made liable (commercial objective).
  2. In strict liability, the escape of a dangerous thing is necessary, whereas, in absolute liability, an enterprise can be made responsible even without an escape.
  3. Certain exceptions are available to a person in strict liability, whereas no defences are available in absolute liability.

Read Next:
1. What Is Rule of Constructive Liability or Joint Liability in IPC
2. What Are the General Defences Under the Law of Torts
3. What Is Nuisance in Law of Torts in India?

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