Strict liability means liability of a person for the wrong he does. It means he is liable for any fault of his own; for any care or precaution that he is expected to take but has not taken. There may be many instances when strict liability will arise and also make him absolutely liable for all the consequences. Some of the important instances are discussed below.
Rule of Strict Liability
The strict principle of law is: sics utere tuo ut alienum non laedas; it means, everyone must so use his own as not to do damage to another. When this maxim is applied to landed property, it is necessary for the plaintiff to show not only that he has sustained damage but also that the defendant has caused it by going beyond what is necessary in order to enable him to have the natural use of his own land.
The owner or occupier of land may lawfully use it for any purpose for which it might, in the ordinary course of the employment of land, be used. And for such natural uses of land, an owner will not, in the absence of negligence, be liable, though damage results to the neighbor. But, for any non-natural user, such as the introduction on to the land of something which, in the natural condition of the land, is not upon it, he is liable if damage results to his neighbour.
Rylands v Fletcher (1868, p.330) — the water reservoir case: Fletcher was working in a coal mine under a lease. On the neighboring land, Rylands desired to erect a reservoir for storing water, and for this purpose, he employed a competent independent contractor whose workmen, while excavating the soil, discovered some disused shafts and passages communicating with old workings and the mine in the adjoining land. The shafts and passages had been filled with loose earth and rubbish.
The contractor did not take the trouble to pack these shafts and passages with earth, so as to bear pressure of water in the reservoir, when it is filled. Shortly after the construction of the reservoir, whilst it was partly filled with water, the vertical shafts gave way and burst downwards. The consequence was that the water flooded the old passages and also the plaintiff’s mine, so that the mine could not be worked. The plaintiff sued for damages.
No negligence on the part of the defendant was proved. The only question was whether the defendant would be liable for the negligence of the independent contractor who was admittedly a competent engineer. The Court held that the question of negligence was quite immaterial. The defendant, in bringing water into the reservoir, was bound to keep it there at his peril, and was, therefore, liable.
In this case, it was ruled as follows: A person who, for his own purpose, brings on his land and collects and keeps there, anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it in and at his peril; and if he does so, he is prima facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape. This is known as the rule in Rylands v Fletcher (also known as “the wild beast theory”).
Indian Law: It has been held in several cases that the principle of Rylands v Fletcher applies in India.
Essential Ingredients of Strict Liability
The essential ingredients of strict liability include the following.
There should be dangerous thing.
There should be escape of dangerous thing.
There should be some damage out of this escape
There should be a non-natural use of the land or property. (I would suggest read one case law for each of the above essential ingredient to write in law optional paper)
Exceptions to the Rule of Strict Liability
The following are five important exceptions to the principle/rule laid down in Rylands v Fletcher’s case.
Vis Major or act of God: An act of God (vis major) is defined to be such a direct, violent, sudden and irresistible act of nature, as could not, by any amount of ability, have been foreseen, or if foreseen, could not, by any amount of human care and skill, have been resisted.
Wrongful or malicious act of a stranger: The rule is also not applicable where the damage is due to the wrongful or malicious act of a stranger. If, however, the act of the stranger is such that it ought to have been anticipated and guarded against, the defendant will be liable for failure to take reasonable care.
Plaintiff’s own fault: The rule also does not apply where the escape is due to the plaintiff’s own fault.
Common benefit: The rule does not apply where the escape is due to artificial works maintained With the plaintiff’s consent and for the common benefit of the plaintiff and the defendant,
Statutory authority: The last exception to the rule in Rylands v Fletcher is where the defendant is empowered or authorized or required under the law or a statue to accumulate, keep or collect the dangerous thing, which escapes and causes 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 the damage caused by its escape.
Statutory authority is, however, of two kinds: i) absolute and ii) discretionary. The former confers absolute immunity for the consequences of acts which would otherwise amount to torts. The latter must be exercised with due care and regard to the rights of Others.
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