Essentials of Strict Liability
By: Robin Pandey Date: 07/03/2022
There are three requirements which must be established for the claimant to sue under the rule. The first two is derived from Justice Blackburn's statement of principle. The third is derived from the Lord Cairn's observations in the House of Lords.
(1) The defendant brings on his lands for his own purposes something likely to do mischief. It means some dangerous thing must have been brought by a person on his land.
(2) The dangerous thing thus brought or kept on his land by the defendant must escape. This is one of the key features of liability.
(3) There must have been non-natural use of land. Natural or ordinary user is suggested as a defence or exception to the rule of strict liability.
In an action for tort the plaintiff always tries to show that his case is covered by the strict liability rule. The reason being that in that case he need not prove the negligence of the defendant and the burden of proof shifts on the defendant to prove that his case does not fall within the purview of the rule. But in order to succeed in this attempt the plaintiff has to prove three essential attributes of strict liability rule.
(1) Dangerous thing (Things likely to do damage): According to this rule, the liability for the escape of a thing from one's land arises provided the defendant must bring, introduce, keep or collect that thing on his property which is dangerous. The thing must be dangerous in the sense that it can do some mischief in case of its escape from the land. The rule does not apply in case of things which are not essentially dangerous and which it is not unusual to keep on land. The dangerous character of the thing does not necessarily depend upon its substance. A thing innocent in itself may become dangerous if it is stored in a huge quantity just as in Rylands v. Fletcher itself the thing escaped was water which in itself is not a dangerous thing, rather it is essential for life but when water, stored in a huge quantity, escapes from the bounds it may be hazardous to life and property.
Whether a thing which has been brought and kept by the defendant on his land is one which is likely to do mischief if it escapes is a question of fact and it is to be decided in each case. Therefore, one particular thing may come within the rule in one case but not in another.
(2) Escape: The proof of an actual escape is vital. Liability under this rule will only be imposed if the injury had been caused to the plaintiff in consequence of “the escape of the mischievous substance" from land of which the defendant is in occupation or control to the area outside the occupation and control of the defendant. Where there is no such escape there is no liability. In Read v. Lyons & Co. (1947), the plaintiff was an employee in the defendant's ammunition factory. While she was performing her duties inside the defendant's premises, a shell, which was being manufactured there, exploded whereby she was injured. There was no evidence of the negligence on the part of the defendants. Even though the shell which had exploded was a dangerous thing, it was held that the defendants were not liable because there was no escape of the thing outside the defendant's premises, and therefore, the Rylands' Rule did not apply.
In Crownhurst v. Amersham Burial Board, (1878), it was provided that if there is the 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 the leaves of the same, the defendant will be liable under the rule. But, if the plaintiff's horse intrudes over the boundary and dies by nibbling the leaves of a Poisonous tree there, the defendant cannot be liable because there is no escape of the vegetation.
(3) Non-natural use of land: Justice Blackburn in Rylands v. Fletches referred to the defendant bringing on to the property something "which was not naturally there", which Lord Cairns in the House of Lords interpreted as a "non-natural use". It refers to some special use of a thing which bring with it the increased danger to others, and must not merely be the ordinary use of the land or such a use as is proper for the general benefit of the community. Ordinary water installation in a house or a flat domestic fire in a house, growing trees on land, building a house and putting cattle to graze on land, gas pipes in a house or shop, electric wiring in house shops, ordinary working of mines and mineral on land, to operate an explosive factory in time of war are natural uses of land.
The use of the fire place in a room is a natural use of the land and if this fire spreads to the adjoining premises, the liability cannot arise under the rule of strict liability. In Noble v. Harrison, (1947) the branch of non-poisonous tree growing on the defendant's land suddenly broke and fell on the plaintiff's vehicle passing along the highway. The branch was broken off due to some latent defect. It was held that defendant could not be made liable under the rule in Ryland v. Fletcher. Growing non-poisonous trees on one's land are natural use of land.