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Strict Liability And Absolute Liability

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 suggestion.

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.

Strict Liability

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.

    The 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.
  •  Escape
    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 own benefit.
  • 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.

Absolute Liability

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' was 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 accident

 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 liability.

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 exception.

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.
  • Escape
    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.
  • Mischief
    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, as 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

  1. The magnitude of the destruction: In absolute liability, the destruction is mass destruction, while in strict liability, this destruction is limited to an extent.
  2. 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).
  3. 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 substance.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

Can any defence be brought against absolute 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 overall development.

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 compensate.

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.

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