This research paper deals with theories of strict liability and absolute
liability. In the first part I have
given introduction and then I have started with introducing strict liability and then I have discussed
essential conditions to strict liability and then defenses available and further there are case studies
related to strict liability. In second part I have discussed absolute liability and its essential conditions,
defenses available and relevant cases related to absolute liability. In third part I have discussed strict
liability vs absolute liability and at last I have concluded the research paper with adding my
The definition of strict liability was first adopted in the late 1800s. It arose
from the principle of incompetence, which commonly applies to reckless conduct.
It entails a duty of responsibility to one's neighbours, with a violation of
that duty resulting in harm to the neighbours. When the defendant is found to be
negligent, he or she is held liable to pay the complainant for the damages
incurred. In contrast, under absolute liability, the defendant is found liable
regardless of whether or not he was negligent.
When an organization engages in a hazardous or fundamentally unsafe practice
that causes injury to someone as a result of an event that occurs while the
hazardous or inherently dangerous activity is being carried out. This makes the
company fully liable to pay all people who are harmed as a result of the crash,
and that responsibility is not subject to any of the exceptions then it comes
under absolute liability.
In the following paper, we have discussed about what is strict and absolute
liability. What are the essential elements to qualify under one liability. How
court defines it and what are the elements comes under it. Furthermore, we
discussed a few cases in the report. In addition to this we have addressed the
differences between the two laiblities and concluded the paper.
In the words of legal scholar, Sir John Salmond:
A tort is a civil wrong for
which the remedy is an action for unliquidated damages, and which is not
exclusively the breach of a contract, or the breach of a trust, or the breach of
other merely equitable obligation."
(N Pradhan, n.d.) Taking into context the
uncodified Law of Tort, within circumstances of a wrongful act or an
infringement of rights, civil liability is bound to fall upon the tortfeasor. In
the landmark case in 1868 of Rylands v Fletcher
the rule was established
called Strict Liability and accepted by the House of Lords. Strict liability is
one of the many kinds of Tort that came into existence to ensure the imposition
of liability on an individual or an entity in case of acts leading to damages or
losses, even if these acts were unintentional consequences. Hence, strict
liability is also called the No-Fault Liability
The immateriality of
intention and due care is the fine line that sets out strict liability from
negligence. The court allows the defendant to engage in such risk imposing
activities as long he stands ready to compensate those inflicted. If this rule
ceased to exist, it would bring an unequal balance of rights between the
wrongdoer and the victim
If we go by the definition Strict Liability is when due to the negligence of the
Tortfeasor, any dangerous thing escapes from his/ her premises and harms anyone/
anything, then the liability is said to be strict liability.
Essential Conditions To Strict Liability
- Dangerous Thing
The strict liability rule applies to 'Anything that can do mischief if it
escapes.' The essential feature that serves as the basis of applicability is
that the word 'anything' refers to substances accumulated by the defendant and
brought by him to his property and not naturally occurring substances.
Courts usually use a fact-based test in determining the 'dangerous thing' to
form an analysis as to whether the thing is likely to cause danger or mischief
if it escaped into the land's surroundings. strict liability has three
categories that include animals both owned or possessed abnormally dangerous
activities, and product liability. Things like explosives, noxious fumes,
electricity, flag poles, etc are some examples considered to be dangerous
things. The Cambridge Water v. Eastern Counties Leather established a
determinant test wherein the plaintiff has the burden of proof and have to prove
that the damage and harm were foreseeable by the defendant.
- Unnatural land use
The strict liability rule will apply if the defendant collects and operates any
substance likely to cause mischief if it escapes. The storage of large
quantities of dangerous materials, the casual way of its maintenance, and the
character of the neighbourhood are characters that go into circumstantial
evidence depending on which liability may be owed.
The mere evidence of a 'dangerous thing' is not enough to prove the defendant is
liable, that substance must escape from the premises of the defendant to
another's and inflict ultra hazardous harm to the victim. The word 'escape'
denotes to signify an escape from the place of the defendant or had control or
owe it to a place which is outside his control or occupation.
Defenses Under Strict Liability Rule
- Claimant's default
The defendant cannot be held liable due to damage caused to the plaintiff as a
result of the latter's default. In fact, in 'Rylands v. Fletcher' 3itself, it
was suggested that there would be no liability under the rule if the escape was
due to the plaintiff's fault. In Ponting v. Noakes a horse owned by the claimant
wandered into the defendant's land and partook leaves of a poisonous tree. The
court held that the plaintiff was denied the benefit of the strict liability
rule as the horse intruded into the defendant's premises.
- Volenti Non-Fit Injuria
Where the claimant has impliedly or expressly consented with the defendant to
bear the burden of the harmful situation together, the defendant cannot be held
liable for the escape in substance and resulted in harm, unless the plaintiff
succeeds to prove lack of due care or negligence on the side of the defendant.
As in the case of, Dunne v. North West Gas Board the plaintiffs brought an
action against the Gas Board after the gas had escaped from a rupture in the
water main leading to five casualties. The defendant was not held liable as it
was a consented act and the Gas Board had not accumulated the substance for its
- Act of God (Vis Major)
Vis Major or the Act of God is considered as an event free from human
intervention. In these circumstances, the defendant will not shoulder
responsibility if he can prove that human foresight and prudence could not have
recognized the possibility of such a harmful outcome.
- Act of Third Party
If damage is suffered by a plaintiff due to an unforeseeable act of a stranger,
the defendant shall not be held liable and the burden of proof shall remain with
him to prove the same. In Box v. Jubb, the defendant's reservoir was overrun due
to the deliberate act of the third party emptying his own reservoir into theirs.
Moreover, if the defendant fails to take due care against an action that was
forcible then the principle of negligence will be applied and the person will
be held under that and will be held negligent.
- Statutory Authority
Every so often, the authority charged with providing a service to society is
exempted from liability if they are not found negligent. In the ruling Greene v. Chelsa Waterworks and Co, the court held that no company was not liable in the
event of the burst in the main pipe as it was the duty of the defendant to
maintain the main supply of water.
Rylands V/S Fletcher
Facts: The plaintiff and defendant were neighbouring property owners. The
defendant, a mill owner hired independent contractors for the construction of a
water reservoir on his land. While working, the contractors came across passages
under the reservoir which was filled loosely only with Earth and Marl, but they
chose to ignore the problem. Once the reservoir was full, water broke through
these shafts, flooding the mine property owned by the plaintiff causing
considerable damage. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a suit against the
defendant to recover his lost gains.
- The issue in Rylands V/S Fletcher the case is if the defendant would be
held liable for an act executed by another.
Regardless of the defendant's plea, the House of Lords considers the
respondent answerable for all harms endured in the mine. As per the law forced
on this case, if an individual submits any activity with a conceivably unsafe
medication on their reason, the person in question will be expected to take
responsibility for any mischief caused by the spillage of the said material, if
it got away because of their ineptitude.
Law should be dynamic and keep changing according to the needs of the modern
world. It won't be appropriate to use centuries-old principles and laws on
present cases and incidents as the world are changing or improving in terms of
technology, economic activities, behaviour, culture and overall at all aspects.
The concept of Absolute liability was also transformed in the same manner where
economic activities and industrialization in today's frame is far different from
what it was in the past. So the principle of No Fault Liabilit'
introduced which is the base for the absolute liability concept. In India, the
need for such a principle arose out of unfortunate tragic incidents like Bhopal Gas
Leak Case' and 'Oleum Gas Leak case
where the Supreme Court of India stepped in
and started to hold this principle of absolute liability which actually evolved
from the principle of No Fault liability in English law
Now let us see, what is the absolute liability principle?
Absolute liability basically means strict liability without exception
So we can have a simple formula for absolute liability
ie. Absolute liability = Strict liability – Exceptions.
Absolute liability can be derived as, when an industry or enterprise is involved
in an inherently dangerous activity or using hazardous substances and deriving
commercial benefit out of them, and such an activity is capable of causing any
damage, then the company officials will be absolutely liable to pay compensation
to the aggrieved parties without any defence. They cannot plead that there was
no negligence on their part and reasonable care was taken to prevent such an
In case of Absolute liability, they neither plead defences like 'Act
Of God' nor ' Act of Stranger which can be done in case of strict liability.
This defense component primarily differentiate absolute liability from strict
Advancement Of Absolute Liability In India
In India, the rule of strict liability is an accepted doctrine, though rarely
enforced in courts. According to the Supreme court's ruling in the case of M.C
Mehta v. Union of India
, the 19th-century rule of strict liability was found to
be inadequate to match these modern times due to the growing industrialization
lending aid to developmental projects.
As the strict liability rule was subject
to many exceptions, the court felt that there was hardly any rule left and hence
this principle was replaced with the absolute liability rule. Ironically, the
rule of absolute liability was stricter than strict liability as it entailed no
This rule clearly holds that if an enterprise engages in a hazardous
activity and this activity results in harm to anyone, the corporation would be
held wholly responsible. Thereby, provoking the non-delegable and absolute
nature of this principle.
Essential Conditions In Absolute Liability
- Hazardous Substance
According to the rules which are established, the liability of a substance
escaping from someone's land will come into light only if the substance is
hazardous or dangerous. The substance should be dangerous in that it is harmful
and injurious and can cause damage. In simple words, there should be the use of
any Hazardous substance cause such an accident. It can be poisonous gases,
fumes, pollutants, water reservoir, explosives etc.
To held liable the defendant, there should be an escape of a substance or a
thing that caused harm or damage from the land of the defendant or the land
which was under the control of the defendant. In other words, the hazardous
substance should escape so that it causes some damage to a victim which give
rise to absolute liability. But Escape within the premise can also be considered
for absolute liability.
- Non- natural use of land
It can be clear from the facts of the case. Storing water for domestic purpose
can be natural whereas storing water in reservoirs in large quantity can be
non-natural. Similarly growing plants or trees on land can be natural whereas
growing plants which is poisonous in nature can be unnatural.
In order to hold a defendant liable, the plaintiff needs to show that some
hazardous substance had escaped and caused some damages.
M.C. Mehta V.S. Union Of India
Fact Of The Case:
On the fourth and sixth of December, 1985, there was a
monstrous spill of oleum gas in Delhi. It happened in one of the divisions of
the Shriram Foods and Fertilizers Industries undertaking, which has a place with
the Delhi Cloth Mills, Ltd. A few group were injured in this assault, and one
individual passed on, who turned out to be a lawyer working in the Tis Hazari
Court. The attorney M.C. Mehta himself documented a writ request as a Public
Interest Litigation (PIL) for the situation.
This was not the first instance of
gas spillage in Quite a while that prompted numerous causes. The primary concern
was that assuming severe obligation enactment was rehearsed, any of these
glitches coming about because of the activities of those huge organizations
would straightforwardly go under the exceptions to the previously mentioned
responsibility. Thus, they will pull off no fault for the harm they do over the
span of their hazardous activity.
It would not exclusively be low to the
individuals who have endured because of the harm, however it would likewise give
the feeling that huge partnerships are excluded to obligation.
Following the Court's consideration of the above questions, it decided to
develop a new rule; the statute of absolute responsibility
formulated by (then) Chief Justice of India, P.N. Bhagwati. This new law was a
more modernised, recent version of its predecessor, strict liability, but it
lacked the exemptions.
Absolute Liability Vs. Strict Liability
Can any defence be brought against absolute liability?
- The magnitude of the destruction: In absolute liability, the destruction
is mass destruction, while in strict liability, this destruction is limited
to an extent.
- Defence against the Tort: In Absolute Liability, there is no defence
whereas, in strict liability, the tortfeasor can set the defence(the act of
God is one of them).
- The doctrine of strict liability has some exceptions which can be taken
into consideration. Act of God, the act of the third party etc. are these
exceptions and can be applied if any of this is true in the case of the
defendant whereas in the case of absolute liability there is nothing like
exception provided to the industries involved in activities of the hazardous
- In absolute liability, the degree of damages depends on the greatness,
capacity and financial capability of the company or the organization which
caused the damage, whereas, in strict liability, compensation has to be paid
as per the nature and amount of damage caused.
- According to the principle of absolute liability, the element of escape
is not crucial. In other words, the rule of absolute liability should be
applied to those injured in the premise and person outside, which is not in
the case of strict liability
No defence can be brought against a case where strict liability is applied. This
makes it different from strict liability where
defences like Act of God
and Act of the third person
can be applied.
Suggestion and Conclusion
The principle of compensatory justice remains the benchmark of the system of
liability. In order to secure the goals of justice, liability needs to exist in
a way that it adapts to the fast-shifting times. As situations changes with
time, there is a need to modify the laws in order to meet the challenge of such
new situations. Many regulations in different fields are now considered obsolete
due to their limited utility in modern times. One such legislation is the
concept of strict liability, which, while still in use, has several loopholes
that can be readily used in modern times. As a result, the law needed to be
updated to reflect current times.
The doctrine of Absolute liability is a deviation from the principle that
someone commits an offence when he is at fault. The doctrine of absolute
liability can make anyone liable even if he is not at fault and can come with no
defence which we may think, as against the principle of natural justice where
everyone is allowed to defend their case.
The rule of strict liability may have served well in the past centuries with the
reversal of the burden of proof, but with the modernization of society and an
increase in industrialization, a change in principle had to be made. The
exceptions in the strict liability principle would turn into excuses for
enterprises to be careless in the exercise of reasonable care.
Absolute liability is equivalent to strict liability, except since it has no
exceptions, it prevents exploitation and cruelty to the suffering party. There
was an urgent and intrinsic need for such a theory since the law of strict
liability, which was developed over two centuries earlier, cannot be used as the
primary principle to account for reimbursement because it was formulated at a
time when technical progress was only in its early stages in contrast to today's
But I feel that the Indian Judiciary had come up with the right decision by
holding a new doctrine. The main reasons could be such big corporate firms can
come up with defence all the time and escape through loopholes of the law.
However, there is still room for change in the case of total liability rule. As
previously stated in the article, the concept of total responsibility provides
coverage to sufferers/victims depending on the enterprise's willingness to
It is true that this situation will assist claimants in receiving higher
payments, but this will only apply because the industries have the vast capacity
to compensate. Smaller industries will face smaller penalties, which would not
be proportionate to the loss sustained, violating the fundamental concept of
tortious liability. To stop some sort of cruelty to the sufferers, it is
strongly suggested to amend the determining factor behind the amount of
compensation given to the quantity of losses sustained by the claimants, at
least for the smaller industries.
At last, the research questions are plainly replied, with the initial segment
being clarified in detail through different cases and the subsequent part being
investigated and examined through cases, for example, the Oleum Gas Leak case
and the Bhopal Gas Tragedy case
, where the casualties would have
confronted outrageous treachery on the off chance that severe risk had been
applied, these businesses would have gotten away from responsibility.
Which would not just have caused a public clamor and bringing about genuine
unfairness to the people in question, however it would likewise have given the
feeling that enormous enterprises are invulnerable to any tortious obligation.