Doctrine of strict liability and absolute liability – By Isha
Doctrine of Strict Liability
In some cases, a person (defendant) is liable for the harm caused to another ( plaintiff) even though there is no negligence on his part and he never intended such a harm to come to the other person. In such cases, even the defence of inevitable accident is not a valid defence. This is known as “principle of strict liability”. This principle was laid down in the famous case of ” Rylands vs Fletcher”.
Case Law: Rylands vs Fletcher
“A” the owner of a mill, employed a contractor to construct a reservoir over his land to provide water to his mill. While digging and constructing the reservoir, the contractor failed to notice some disused shafts under the site of the reservoir and as such did not block them up. Shortly after the water was filled in the reservoir, it broke through some of the shafts and flooded B’s (the plaintiff’s) coalmines on the adjoining land. Held, A was liable in respect of the damage caused to B even though the damage was caused not due to the negligence of A, but due to the negligence of the independent contractor.
This rule is applicable when harm is caused by the escape of fumes, gas, electricity, wild animals,etc
Essential ingredients for the application of doctrine of strict liability:
A person on his land must have brought dangerous thing.
The thing thus brought/kept by a person on his land has escaped.
It must be a non- natural use of land.
Dangerous thing: In order to make a defendant liable it must be proved that he had kept on his land a dangerous thing, that is, a thing likely to cause harm if it escapes.
Escape: To apply the doctrine of strict liability, the dangerous thing kept on land should escape from the defendant’s land. For example, if there is projection of the branches of a poisonous tree on the neighbour’s land, this amounts to an escape and if the cattle lawfully there on the neighbour’s land are poisoned by eating leaves of the same, the defendant will be liable under the rule.
Non natural use of land: Non natural use refers to some special use by the defendant, which may otherwise expose others to increased danger. Water collected in the reservoir in such a huge quantity in Rylands vs Fletcher was held to be a non- natural use of land.
Exceptions to the Above Rule
Act of God: If the dangerous thing escapes due to unforeseen and supernatural forces without any human intervention, the defence of Act of God can be pleaded.
Consent of the plaintiff: The rule of law, “where there is consent, there is no injury ” is applicable where the plaintiff has consented to the accumulation of the dangerous thing on the defendant’ s land, he cannot sue if it escapes and causes some damage.
Plaintiff’s Own fault: Where the thing escape due to plaintiff own fault and causes damage, the rule in Rylands vs Fletcher does not apply.
Case Law: Pointing vs Noakes
There was a poisonous tree on the defendant’ s land. Plaintiff’s horse strayed in to the defendant’s land and died, after nibbling the leaves of the tree. It was held that the defendant was not liable as the damage was caused owing to the plaintiff’s negligence.
4. Wrongful Act of Third Party: If the harm caused is due to the act of a stranger ( who is in no way under the control of the defendant), the defendant is not liable under the rule.
Doctrine of Absolute Liability
The doctrine of absolute liability is a creation of the Supreme Court in preference to the rule of strict liability down Rylands vs Fletcher. The highlight of the rule of absolute liability is that it is not subject to any of the exceptions discussed under the rule of strict liability.
This path breaking decision was made by the Supreme Court following two major gas leaks, namely, the escape of methyl isocynate from the Union Carbide plant (Bhopal Gas Tragedy) and the leakage of oleum gas from one of the units of Sriram Foods and Fertilizers Industries ( M.C. Mehta vs Union of India)
As the first case had wrecked havoc on thousands of innocent lives, the Supreme Court feared that industries dealing with hazardous substances would escape the liability for damage caused by leakage of deadly gases by pleading some exception under the doctrine of strict liability. Hence, the courts in India are in favour of applying the rule of doctrine of absolute liability instead of doctrine of strict liability.