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Absolute Liability and Strict Liability: Explanation and Differences

Absolute Liability
In the event of an inherently dangerous activity being undertaken by a profit-making enterprise, resulting in damage to any party, the company owners are fully accountable without the use of any defence or exception.

The undertaking will be on the hook for any and all consequences resulting from its activities, which means paying compensation to any aggrieved parties.

Industries must be made to supply all the required safety equipment and take safety measures to ensure workers are protected from mishaps. Such law exists to safeguard workers' interest and provide a secure workplace.

If a for-profit business is participating in a dangerous task and it results in injury to individuals, they are responsible for compensating the damages, regardless of whether they were able to evade the situation or not. This notion asserts that the enterprise bears the blame for any injuries that occur due to their hazardous practices.

The enterprise involved in the activity will be responsible for paying damages not only when the hazardous component leaves the campus, but also if harm is caused to those working within. This implies that damages aren't restricted to external incidents.

After two significant gas leaks, the doctrine of absolute liability was established by the Supreme Court, as a replacement for strict liability.
  • Gas tragedy that occurred at the Union Carbide Plant in Bhopal due to the release of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) thereby causing a catastrophic leak that took place sporadically.
  • Sriram Food and Fertilizers Industries experienced a gas leak of Oleum from one of their units, Delhi.
The doctrine of absolute liability came to be due to fears of industries that deal with hazardous substances being exempted from liability for damages caused by the leakage of deadly gases. This fear was sparked by the great damage caused to thousands of people in the initial incident. The exceptions under strict liability were the cause of concern for the Supreme Court of India.

Absolute liability principles can be difficult to navigate. Accountability is an integral aspect of their establishment, irrespective of the level of fault or intentions. This denotes that even if one is unaware of the potential hazards or had no ill intentions, they can be held accountable for any injury or damage arising from their actions. It can pose significant difficulties, particularly in cases of unforeseen or uncontrollable harm.

The safety and well-being of society depend on absolute liability principles that discourage reckless behaviour, which is why they are necessary. To promote responsible conduct and prevent accidents, it is crucial to comprehend and comply with these principles, despite their inherent difficulties.

Liability is absolute, regardless of precautions taken, when damage is caused by stored explosives that were accidentally detonated. This is a standard applied to high-risk activities or things that could jeopardize public safety, which holds those involved accountable for any resulting harm.

In absolute liability cases, the defendant is held responsible for certain actions or products automatically, without any defences or excuses allowed. It doesn't matter whether the defendant took precautions or not; if harm occurs, they are liable.

Absolute liability is a legal concept that holds a person or entity strictly and automatically liable for a particular action or harm, regardless of any fault or intent. In absolute liability cases, the defendant is held responsible simply because they engaged in a certain activity or owned something inherently hazardous, and an injury or harm occurred as a result. There is typically no defence or excuse allowed in cases of absolute liability.

Absolute liability is a more stringent standard than strict liability. In cases of strict liability, a defendant may have defences, such as proving that they took all necessary precautions to prevent harm. In contrast, absolute liability provides no such defences.

Absolute liability is relatively rare in legal systems, and it is typically applied in limited and specific situations, often related to matters of public safety or health. The possession of certain risky chemicals or the storage of explosives may result in absolute responsibility in certain areas. Even if the individual or entity takes prudent measures, any injury or loss sustained as a result of these actions will make the party liable.

Activities or situations that pose significant risks to public health and safety or are inherently hazardous must be conducted with the utmost care and security, which is precisely what absolute liability aims to ensure.

Principles of Absolute Liability
Absolute Liability is also based on the following three principles:
  • Enterprise.
  • Hazardous Activity.
  • Escape is not necessary in this case.
There are no exceptions in the case of absolute liability. The quantum of damage depends on the size of the enterprise.

Absolute liability is a legal rule that makes a person or company automatically responsible for any harm or damage caused by a certain action or item, no matter what. It doesn't matter if they were careful or not, and there are no excuses or defences allowed. If something harmful happens, they are held responsible.

Strict Liability
Due to a court case known as Rylands v. Fletcher in 1868, there came about a new law called Strict Liability.

The doctrine provides that if hazardous substances are introduced onto someone's property, that individual is liable for any resulting harm to others from the substances' release. Even if the defendant acted without negligence or an intent to cause damage, they still bear responsibility for storing hazardous substances. Consequently, the first-tier responsibility rests with them.

Certain situations do not consider unavoidable accidents as a valid defence and this is called strict liability.

In matters pertaining to strict liability, the responsibility of proving innocence rests solely on the defendant. Liability can be established independent of negligence, fault, or intention. The individual making a claim must furnish evidence of a tort, following which the onus of owning up to the act falls on the defendant.

Under the rule of strict liability, one can be held accountable for any harm arising from something they made or did, regardless of intention or care taken. It is a legal concept that disregards negligence or lack thereof, focusing solely on the causation of harm. Therefore, if actions or products result in harm, one may be held responsible.

Take the situation where a business creates a toy that harms children, the company may be considered strictly liable for any harms the toy caused, despite any lack of intent. This measure is commonly used to maintain the public's well-being and to ensure those in charge take extra precautions during production or creation.

Involving prospective harm, consumer safety, and other legal areas, strict liability is a critical legal concept. It obligates entities, individuals, and companies to an immense level of responsibility for their actions or products, irrespective of their intent or fault. Hence, legal accountability can be held against them if their products or actions result in harm without the requirement to demonstrate negligence or intention to cause harm.

Product liability cases often implement the principles of strict liability. Any faulty or harmful products produced or distributed by manufacturers or distributors can lead to them being held responsible for any damages or injuries caused. This implies that in the event of a flaw-related injury, there is no need to prove that the manufacturer acted negligently because the liability is established simply by the faulty product causing harm.

Activities that are considered ultrahazardous, like handling toxic chemicals or explosives, bring about a need for strict liability in addition to product liability. When someone is engaged in these sorts of activities, they are accountable for any damages or harm that result, regardless of how much caution was exercised. This way, utmost care is guaranteed in managing these risky pursuits.

The production of dangerous products and careless behaviour can be deterred by the principle of strict liability which exists to protect public safety and consumers. It places the burden of responsibility for ensuring public safety on those involved in hazardous activities, in order to encourage caution. As a result, the principle of strict liability acts as a strong deterrent against harm caused by reckless behaviour or dangerous products.

Forced accountability is the hallmark of strict liability, in contrast to negligence-based liability which takes into account how much care or caution was taken. The latter forms of defence are inapplicable in the former. Under strict liability, both individuals and corporations bear the full responsibility for any harm they cause. Although the responsibility can prove formidable for those accused, it fosters a society that values caution and safety.

Principles of Strict Liability
There are three basic principles in Strict Liability:
Non-Natural use of land: In the instance of Ryland v. Fletcher, the accumulation of water for personal purposes is a natural practice, but according to the case, water storage for commercial purpose, for example, powering a mill, is not natural.

Dangerous Substance: When a substance causes harm once it escapes from the premises of a location, it is referred to as a dangerous substance. The category encompasses various items, such as toxic gases, electricity, and explosives, to name a few.

Escape: It should escape from the defendant's premises and should be out of his/her reach.

  • In cases where the claimant is the one responsible for the harm, there can be no redress for the plaintiff. A prime illustration is the Ponting v. Noakes case.
  • Without any human interference, if an escape is caused by natural causes, it is considered an Act of God. The Act of God can be put forth as a viable defence by the defendant in certain situations. A well-known example of this is the Nichols v. Marsland case.
  • No negligence on the defendant's part can lead to them not being liable when mutual benefit occurs. This situation arises when the plaintiff consents to the presence of the source of danger or damage, either express or implied.
  • If the origin of injury lies with an unknown individual or outsider, known as the Act of Stranger, the defendant is not liable. They hold no power over the defendant and are not related to them in any way, it must be emphasized.
  • A defence is available if the act is committed by either a corporation or the government, as per the Statutory Act.
  • A defence is available if there is natural use of land like playing cricket in the cricket ground. Someone who is hit by a cricket ball and gets injured, cannot claim damages.
  • If the damage is caused by anything which is naturally attached to the land, then the owner is not liable.

Differences between Absolute Liability and Strict Liability
The differences between Strict Liability and Absolute Liability are as follows:
  1. The defendant cannot defend themselves in absolute liability, whereas strict liability allows the defendant to claim various defenses like act of God, third party interventions, plaintiff as the wrongdoer, statutory act, act of mutual benefit/volenti non fit injuria and so on.
  2. There is mass damage in Absolute Liability, but limited damage in Strict Liability.
  3. In Absolute Liability, the amount of compensation depends upon the capability of the company, whereas in Strict Liability the amount of compensation is based on the nature and quantum of damage.
  4. The scope of Absolute Liability is wider, whereas the scope of Strict Liability is narrow.
  5. The reason behind Absolute Liability is the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Case and Sriram Food and Fertilizers Industries Case, Delhi, whereas the reason behind Strict Liability is the Rylands v. Fletcher case of United Kingdom.
  6. Escape of hazardous substance is not necessary in Absolute Liability, whereas escape of hazardous substance is necessary in Strict Liability.
  7. Absolute liability is generally related to an enterprise, whereas Strict Liability is related to a person.
  8. Hazardous activity, escape not necessary, and Enterprise are covered by Absolute Liability principles. Meanwhile, Strict Liability principles encompass Dangerous substance, Escape, and Non-natural use of land.
  9. In the case of absolute liability, compensation paid is a deterrent in nature, whereas payment of compensation in the case of strict liability is as per the nature and quantum of damages incurred.
  10. Absolute Liability is a more stringent standard in comparison to Strict Liability.
  11. Absolute Liability originated in India, whereas Strict Liability came from the United Kingdom.
  12. In the first case relating to Absolute Liability methyl isocyanate and oleum gases escaped, whereas in the first Strict Liability case water escaped.

The promotion of safety and responsibility is the main purpose of strict liability and absolute liability in legal systems. When it comes to high-risk activities like storing explosives, absolute liability is especially crucial to public safety. It acts as an effective deterrent, making sure individuals and entities take necessary precautions to avoid accidents since they are accountable for any harm that follows automatically. In riskier scenarios, where the stakes are very high, absolute liability reduces the likelihood of legal disputes and provides speedy compensation for victims, thereby keeping the public's health and safety in check.

Producing safe and high-quality products is generally encouraged by the accountability enforced by strict liability, which is vital for fairness and consumer protection. When it concerns product liability, strict liability is a crucial aspect that holds manufacturers and sellers accountable for any defects or hazards in their merchandise. This not only safeguards customers but also encourages companies to prioritize producing safe and top-notch goods.

If someone sustains injuries, obtaining compensation is straightforward without the need to prove negligence, and the legal proceedings are swift and uncomplicated. This approach to liability is useful in striking a balance between the needs of consumers and the responsibilities of businesses, as it enables access to compensation and encourages the implementation of preventative measures. Ultimately, this leads to a marketplace that is safer and more equitable.


Written By: Md.Imran Wahab
, IPS, IGP, Provisioning, West Bengal
Email: [email protected], Ph no: 9836576565

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