The principle of strict liability had evolved in the case of Rylands v Fletcher. In this case, the defendant had got a reservoir built through an independent contractor. There were old unused shafts leading to the coal mines of the plaintiff under the site of this reservoir, which the contractors being negligent in their actions failed to notice and so had not blocked them as they should have for not causing any harm to the plaintiff. When the water was filled in the reservoir, it burst through the shafts and flooded the plaintiff's coal mines on the neighbouring land, thereby causing damage to the plaintiff. The defendant had not been negligent in this case because he didn’t know about the existence of the shaft under the site of his reservoir, but he was eventually held liable.
The Rule of strict liability states that any person who keeps hazardous substances on their premises will be held responsible even if those substances escape the premises and cause any damage to another party unintentionally. It is a kind of liability under which a person is legally responsible for the consequences flowing from an activity even in the absence of fault or criminal intent on the part of the defendant.
Essentials under the Rule of Strict Liability are:
The defendant will be held strictly liable only in the case where some dangerous substance escapes from his premises and causes damage to the plaintiff. For the purpose of imposing the Rule of Strict liability, a dangerous substance can be defined as any substance which will cause some mischief or harm on its escape. Things like explosives, toxic gasses, electricity, etc. can be termed as dangerous things.
One more essential condition to make the defendant strictly liable is that the dangerous material should escape from the premises of Defendant and shouldn’t be within the reasonable reach of the defendant after its escape. For instance, the defendant has some explosive landmines placed underground on his property. Due to disturbances on the neighbouring field, those landmines get triggered unintentionally and explode causing damage to the cattle of the plaintiff. The defendant will be liable for such loss of the plaintiff. But on the other hand, if the plaintiff trespasses on the premises of the defendant with the malicious intention to rob the defendant and cause disturbance that triggers the land mines to explode, the defendant would not be liable for such.
To constitute a strict liability, there should be some non-natural use of the land. In the case of Rylands v. Fletcher, the water collected in the reservoir was considered to be such non-natural use of the land. Storage of water for domestic use is considered to be natural use. But storing water for the purpose of energizing a mill was considered to be 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 which 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. But using the same cooking gas for purposes other than that of cooking it is termed to be non-natural use.
These three conditions are required to be satisfied simultaneously for constructing a case of strict liability.
In the case of Read v. Lyons and Co., The plaintiff had been an employee under the defendant’s ammunition factory. During her duty, a shell that was being manufactured at the factory had exploded which led to some serious injuries to the plaintiff. It was held that since the dangerous thing (the shell) had detonated and caused damage within the manufacturing premises of the factory, the respondent company could not be subjected to the rule of Strict Liability as there was no escape of the shell.
Exceptions to the rule of Strict Liability are:
Plaintiff’s own fault
If the plaintiff suffers damage due to his own interference or interception into the defendant’s property then the defendant shall not be held liable under the Rule of strict liability. A thief getting injuries while trespassing on the land would not be able to claim under the Rule of Strict liability.
Act of God
Act of God was also considered to be a defence against the action of strict liability. If the escape has been unforeseen and takes place because of supernatural forces without any human intervention, the defence of act of God can be pleaded. Earthquakes paving the way for the animals of the defendant to escape their hold and cause damage to the plaintiff is the suitable condition for using the Act of God.
In the case of Nichols v. Marsland, A man dammed up all the water streams on his land to make artificial lakes for his own use. An unforeseen amount of rain was observed in that year which caused the lakes to overflow, thereby breaking the embankments. This surge of water annihilated the plaintiff’s four bridges. It was held that the respondent should not be subjected to the rule of Strict Liability as the damages were caused by an Act of God.
Consent of the plaintiff
The defence of ‘Volenti non fit injuria’ can be asserted if the aggrieved party had consented to the accumulation of a dangerous thing on the defendant’s land. Such consent is implied when the source of danger serves a common benefit to both the parties. If a water tank is constructed above a building for common use, any damage caused by an escape of water or disintegration of the tank will not be actionable as it was constructed for the common benefit of all the residents in the building.
Act of a third party
If the damages are caused by an act of a stranger which is, a person who is neither the defendant’s servant nor a known acquaintance, the defendant will not be liable under the rule of Strict Liability. However, the act of a stranger should be unforeseeable, unpredictable, or an anomaly.
One simply cannot be held liable under the rule of Strict Liability if his actions were ordered by the authority of a Statute, provided there was no negligence on the part of the actor.
In conclusion, according to the provisions of Law, A person is made liable only when they are at fault. But the principle governing these rules is that a person can also be made liable even without their own fault that caused damage to the aggrieved party. This is known as the principle of “no fault liability.” Under these rules, the liable person might not have initiated the act, but he’ll still be responsible for the damage caused due to those acts.
This article is written by Soham Bansal, of Symbiosis Law School, Nagpur.