Strict Liability: Concerns and Challenges
Authored By- Anushka Mhatre
Keywords: strict liability, product liability, tort, negligence, dangerous things.
The concept of strict liability evolved from the famous case of Rylands v. Fletcher[i]. The rule of strict liability is that if a person accumulates or keeps a thing which may prove to be dangerous on escape, then such a person is strictly liable for any harm or damage that the thing causes, although it is caused accidentally. This article discusses the rule of strict liability and strict product liability and its application in India. It further critically examines the challenges and concerns of the rule of strict liability.
In tort law, the compensation to be paid depends on the extent of precautions taken by the person. If necessary, precautions are taken to prevent the harm, then he may be exempted from compensating the damages. However, in certain cases, a person is liable to pay compensation even if there is no fault or necessary precautions are taken by the person. The concept of strict liability is based on this principle. Under strict liability, a person is held liable even if he is at no fault. This concept of strict liability has been evolved from the concept of negligence. Negligence means failure to exercise the basic amount of care which a reasonable man should perform in any circumstances. A person is held liable for negligence and must compensate for the damage caused. On the other hand, under strict liability, the defendant is held liable even if there is no amount of any negligence on his part. Some activities are inherently dangerous with extreme consequences. For example, leaking of poisonous gases, explosions, defective products, etc. For such activities, the law imposes heavy liability under the principle of strict liability. Permissions allowing such activities often include the clause of strict liability as a pre-condition. Thus, strict liability can be defined as a legal concept wherein a party with no fault or negligence on their part is held liable for their actions and has to compensate the plaintiff for the damage caused.
This rule is very important for certain commercial activities that have the potential to cause great harm and result in horrifying damages. The owner of the land is authorized to use the land lawfully for any purpose as he or she wishes. But, if the owner uses the land for any unnatural purposes and if the dangerous thing brought into the land escapes which causes damages, then the owner is held liable and has to compensate for the same. This principle of strict liability is based on the legal maxim sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas which means everyone must so use his own as not to damage to another.
Essentials conditions of Strict Liability
1. Introduction of some dangerous thing by the person on his land.
2. Non-natural use of the land.
3. Escape of the dangerous thing from the land.
Exceptions to Strict Liability
1. Act of Godi.e.vis major.
2. Wrongful act of a stranger.
3. Plaintiff’s own fault.
4. Consent of the plaintiff.
5. An act done under statutory authority.
Rylands v. Fletcher (The Reservoir Case)
The rule of strict liability was laid down in the famous case of Rylands v. Fletcher.[ii] The defendant, in order to store water and improve his water supply, constructed a reservoir by employing competent independent contractors. These contractors found out some old shafts communicating with the adjoining land and they filled it with loose earth and rubbish. There was negligence on the part of contractors as they did not completely seal these shafts. Due to this negligence, the shafts broke, and water flooded into the adjoining land which had a mine. As a result of the flooding, the mine was destroyed. The owner of the mine sued the owner of the land which had the water reservoir. It was held that the defendant, in bringing the water into the reservoir was bound to keep it there at his peril. If he does not do so, then he is liable is prima facie answerable liable for all the damage which is caused due to the natural consequence of its escape.
Strict Liability from an Indian point of view
The Indian Judiciary has applied the rule of strict liability in various cases. It has been held by the Supreme Court of India that the concept of strict liability exists in India independent of absolute liability.[iii]The rule of the Rylands case has been applied by the Supreme Court in Vohra Sadikabhai v. State of Gujarat [iv] where the escape of water from the dam due to high water level caused great damage to the neighboring land. The Supreme Court in the case of Gujrat SRTC v. Ramanbhai Prabhatbbhai[v]extended the rule of strict liability to the cases of accidents of motor vehicles on the road, under the motor vehicles Act, without the necessity of establishing any negligence on the part of the driver causing the accident.
Strict Product Liability
Strict liability rule aims at holding a person liable without any negligence on his part for the damages caused due to the escape of dangerous things from his premises. Likewise, the rule of strict product liability aims at protecting consumers from defective products sold by the manufacturers. In India, the jurisprudence related to strict product liability has been constantly evolving. Product liability claims have been dealt with by the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, the Sales of Goods Act, 1930, the Indian Contract Act, 1872, and the Bureau of Indian Standards Act, 2016. However, there were certain ambiguities in these statutes which are appropriately dealt with by the Consumer Protection Act, 2019. Under this act, a manufacturer or product seller can be held strictly liable for defective products and the damage caused therein even though there is no negligence or fraud in making the express warranty of the product.
Challenges and Concerns about the rule of Strict Liability
With the modern industrial era equipped with high scientific knowledge and technology, the running of hazardous industries was necessary for the development. The rule of strict liability was laid down in the late 19th century when industrial development was at a slow pace. Many a time, as the essentials of the rule of strict liability, were not fulfilled, the defendants were not held liable even though a great amount of damage was caused. Escape is the most essential element of strict liability. However, the rule is silent on damages occurring inside the land. Thus, when an explosion occurs inside a factory, the rule of strict liability cannot be applied there.[vi] This is the biggest loophole of the rule of strict liability. Further, in the case of Cambridge water co. Ltd. v. Eastern Countries Leather Plc [vii], it was held that the defendant could not be held liable for the damage caused due to slow percolation in 9 months with a borehole which is 1.3 miles away as this kind of percolation could not be foreseen by the defendant. The rule of strict liability requires non-natural use of land. as a result of which the provision of water supply to large blocks of flats did not amount to a special hazard constituting a non-natural use of land and thus the defendant was not held liable even after the collapse of the embankment.[viii] The rule of strict liability comes with many exceptions which enable the defendants to escape from liability. Even though a great amount of damage is caused, the defendant is not held liable just because either the act was an act of God or of a stranger person or was done under statutory authority.All the drawbacks of strict liability have been vanquished by the rule of strict liability laid in the case of M.C Mehta v. Union of India[ix]. The rule of absolute liability states that when an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and if it causes harm to anyone, then the enterprise is absolutely liable and must compensate to all the affected persons because of the accident. This rule is absolute with no exceptions to it.
The rule of strict liability is also called as 'No-Fault Liability' as it holds a person liable even when there is no fault on his part. But with changing time, this rule faced many criticisms due to its loopholes. Sometimes, because of this rule, a person who was worth receiving compensation for the injury caused was not awarded so. The exceptions to this rule often enabled the defendant to escape from liability even in cases of great damage. The shift from strict liability to absolute liability holds significant importance in the industrial age as it ensures the safety of the public at large. It imposes a duty on the industries to take all the necessary precautions in order to avoid the damages caused due to them.
[i] Rylands v. Fletcher, (1868) L.R. 3 H.L. 330. [ii] Ibid. [iii]Kaushnuma Begum v. New India Assurance, JT 2001(1) SC 37. [iv]Vohra Sadikabhai v. State of Gujarat, 2016 SCLT 911. [v] Gujrat SRTC v. Ramanbhai Prabhatbbhai, (1987) 3 SCC 234. [vi]Read v. J. Lyons & Co., (1947) AC 156 (HL). [vii]Cambridge water co. Ltd. v. Eastern Countries Leather Plc, (1994) 1 All ER 53 (HL). [viii]Transco plc v. Stockport MBC, (2003) 3 WLR 1467 (HL). [ix]M.C Mehta v. Union of India, (1987) 1 SCC 395.