Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Defense to Strict Liability


By: Robin Pandey                                                             Date: 24/February/2022

Various exceptions or defences to the rule of strict liability have been recognised in Rylands v. Fletcher, and in the later cases. These are

(1) Things naturally on land

 (2) Damage caused due to natural user of the land

(3) Keeping things which are not dangerous

(4) Plaintiff’s own default

(5) Piaintiff's consent

(6) Act of God (Vis Major)

(7) Statutory Authority

1) Things naturally on land

In respect of things naturally on land, the principle has no application. The rule applies only if the defendant artificially brings or accumulates on his land something that is dangerous, i.e. likely to do mischief. It will not apply to the escape of things which are naturally there, howsoever dangerous they may be, e.g., trees, water on the surface or underground noxious weeds, thistles, or noxious animals like rats or rabbits. To have things naturally on land will prima facie constitute an ordinary and reasonable (as distinct from non-natural) use of land for the purpose of the rule. In Noble v Harrison, the defendant was held not liable for injury caused to the plaintiff by the fall of the branch of an apparently good tree in the defendant ‘s land. 

(2) Damage caused due to "natural user" of the land

 Even in the case where things artificially brought or kept upon u defendant's land. Question may arise whether the defendant is liable to L neighbour for their escape if he is only putting his land to its natural s se Natural user" should never be confused with "things naturally on land". The Rule in Rylands v. Fletcher cannot possibly take away the general immunity given to occupiers of land for acts done in the "natural use" of the land. In the Rylands case, the water collected in reservoir in such a huge quantity was held to be non-natural use of land. The rule is applicable only to non- natural user of land. 

(3) Bringing or keeping things which are not dangerous

To what "things" does the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher apply? The language of Justice Blackburn is very wide: "anything likely to do mischief if it escapes." Subsequent decisions have equated this expression with dangerous things". Most things are likely to do mischief if they escape however, and an attempt to identify attributes which can be described as those of inherent dangerousness is likely to be as unproductive in this context in the pre-Donoghue v. Stevenson law of negligence. Certainly an examination of all the cases in which the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher has been held to apply does not carry us very far. Chemicals, fire and electricity are usually treated as falling under the rule: water, trees, chimney stacks and motor-cars sometimes do and sometimes do not come under it. 

(4) Plaintiff's own act/default 

Where the damage is caused to the claimant solely by his own act or default. he shall have no remedy against the defendant. Chief Justice Cockbum observed: "No action at law can be maintained for any injury which has been brought by the wilful and intentional act of the party complaining as is proximate and immediate cause, such act having been done by him with his eyes open, with the knowledge that the injury would be probable consequence of the act so done by him." If the plaintiff's conduct amounts merely to contributory negligence the amount of damage will be reduced according to his share of blameworthiness.

(5) Piaintiff's consent 

The rule of law is volenti non fit injuria, i.e., where there is consent. there is no injury. 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. For example, in high-rise apartments, water is stored in tanks for the common use of tenants in the building living on different floors. If water escapes or leaks without any negligence on the part of the defendant, he is not liable.

(6) Act of God (Vis Major)

 This defence is, due to the advances in modern technology and science, largely defunct. The expression "Act of God" is a mere short way of expressing the proposition that a defendant is not liable for any accident as to which he can show that it is due to the natural causes directly and exclusively without human intervention and that it could not have been prevented by any amount of foresight, pains and care reasonably to be expected from him. The defendant can put forth the excuse that the escape of thing was due to the act of God. This term signifies operations of natural forces such as tempest or flood or extra-ordinary rainfall. In Blyth v. Water Works Co, it was held that a water company whose apparatus was Constructed with reasonable care, and to withstand ordinary frost. was not liable for bursting of the pipe by an extra-ordinarily severe frost.

(7) Statutory Authority

 The Court will examine in each case whether the breach of the rule of strict liability was authorised by the statute in question. The rule does not apply where the defendant is empowered or authorised or required under the law to accumulate, keep or collect the dangerous things which escape or cause mischief and injury to the plaintiff. Persons empowered by statute to bring or keep upon their land a dangerous substance are not liable in the absence of negligence or an express provision in the statute to the contrary for damage caused by its escape.

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