Tuesday, May 28, 2024





Explain the concept of Absolute & Strict Liability.

• Introduction
Strict liability is a legal concept in which an individual is held liable for his or her actions or omissions without the existence of a mental intention to do so. It can be applied in both criminal and civil proceedings. The concept of strict liability is based on the principle that a person is legally liable for the harm and loss caused by their actions or omissions, irrespective of the degree of culpability (including criminal law blame).

Strict liability is when a party is required to pay a duty without being found guilty of fault. In tort law (for example, negligence or intentional infliction of injury), the claimant only needs to prove that the tort occurred and the defendant was at fault. In criminal law, a person is guilty of a crime and convicted of the crime on both the basis of the fact that the crime was committed (actus reus) and the fact that the perpetrator intended to commit the crime (mens rea).

Mens rea is the legal basis for the criminal offence. Actus reus is the legal basis of the criminal offence. However, in strict liability cases, the fact that the individual had no intention is irrelevant. Even if they had no intention, they are guilty on the basis of the act alone. In such cases, there is no requirement to prove intent either. There is no obligation to prove negligence either.
Since defendants will be found guilty even if they did not know one or more of the facts that rendered their actions or omissions unlawful, the burden of proof is deemed to be severe.

As a consequence, the defendant may not be held liable in any way (i.e. there may be no criminal negligence, which is the lowest standard). These laws are applied to regulatory offences that impose social conduct, where a person’s punishment is relatively light, or where society is concerned about the prevention of harm and seeks to maximize the deterrent value of the offence.
Strict liability theory was first used in England in 19th century case Rylands vs Fletcher.

The defendant owned a mill. He constructed a reservoir to provide water for the mill. The reservoir was constructed on top of old coal mines. The defendant had no knowledge that previous excavations had resulted in the colliery being in operation. The water from the reservoir flooded the colliery, flowing down the old shafts.

Blackburn J. held the mill owner to be liable, on the principle that:
The person who for his own purposes brings on his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it in at his peril, and if he does not do so, is prima facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequences of its escape.

The House of Lords upheld the idea of liability without fault on appeal, but limited it to non-natural uses. This theory covers companies that deal with water, power, oil, hazardous gases, colliery waste, and dangerous vegetation.

• Strict liability
Strict liability dates back to the Rylands case (1868) in which the defendant was found not guilty of having stored dangerous chemicals on his or her property. What strict liability actually means is that he or she is liable for any mistakes he or she may have made if those chemicals escape and cause damage. If there is no negligence on his or her part in the storage of those chemicals, then this rule applies. The burden of proof always lies with the defendant to prove his or her innocence.

Rylands v. Fletcher
Two men were living adjacent to each other, i.e., Rylands and Fletcher. Fletcher had a mill which required energy resources for which there was a need to construct a reservoir. He hired some independent contractors and engineers for the construction. Ryland owned certain mine shafts which the contractors didn’t observe. Because of this, the water reached mines and destroyed Ryland’s land, for which he suffered losses and sued for same.

Issue: Can the defendant be held responsible for another party’s action that causes an entity to leave his property without his knowledge or consent?
The defendant asserted that it was the contractor’s fault rather than his own. He could not accept that he was responsible for the harm, even though he did not know what caused it.

Judgment: The House of Lords held that Fletcher would be liable to compensate Rylands for all the damage caused to him.
Following the precedent set by this case, even if a person did not act negligently when retaining a dangerous object on his property, he will be held prima facie liable for any harm caused by that object’s escape. A person is liable not because of their fault or negligence but because they kept a dangerous object on their property, which then escaped and caused damage.

The strict liability rule refers to the situation where liability arises even in the absence of fault on the defendant’s part.
Based on this principle, certain essentials have been created that help to decide whether liability is strict.
Someone must have brought something hazardous into their property.
There must be Non-natural use of land.
The hazardous item that was brought must escape and cause damage.

Exceptions of strict liability

1. Plaintiff’s own fault- Ponting v Noakes is a case in point. In this case, the claimant’s horse trespassed onto the defendant’s land, ingested some wild tree foliage, and subsequently died. The plaintiff’s horse would not have caused the damage if it had not encroached upon the defendant’s land. Consequently, the defendant is not liable under the strict liability rule.

2. Act of God– The defendant shall not be held liable for any damage caused by a natural event that is not foreseeable, foreseeable, or unavoidable. Nicholas v. Marshland (1876) is a case in point. Four bridges belonging to the plaintiff were damaged when the defendant’s artificial lake overflowed due to torrential rains. In order to recoup the costs, the plaintiff brought a suit against the defendant. The court ruled that the defendant should not be held liable because an act of God had caused the accident.

3. Volenti non-fit injuria/ mutual benefit– If an artificial device is introduced by one party for the benefit of the other party and causes harm to the other party, neither party can take legal action against the other party for damages.

4. Act of stranger– The defendant will not be held accountable by this rule if any harm was brought by a third party over whom the defendant had no influence.

5. Statutory authority– A defense to a claim of tort is an act that was done within the scope of the law.

• Absolute liability

In the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, the doctrine of absolute liability was developed. This case was a significant turning point in Indian legal history by establishing a new rule. The rule stated that an enterprise is strictly liable to compensate all those harmed by an accident when the enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and harm results to anyone as a result of an accident in the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity.

M.C. Mehta v. UOI – In Bhopal, a company owned by the Union Carbide corporation was set up. The factory manufactured pesticides and similar products. On December 2, 1984, 40 tonnes of toxic gas were released from the factory overnight. (Methyl Isocyanate) The surrounding area of the facility became a gas chamber. This resulted in 3000 deaths and thousands of injuries. During the investigation, all of the plant’s safety systems were found to be defective.

The Supreme Court ruled against strict liability because it would have absolved these industries of any responsibility for the damage they caused and the lives lost. The rule made it clear that when an enterprise engaged in a dangerous or inherently dangerous practice and caused injury to another person as a result of that practice while the enterprise was engaged in that hazardous or inherently dangerous practice, the enterprise was required to pay full and total compensation to all the parties who were injured as a result of the accident and there were no exceptions to the tort principle of strict liability.

• Absolute Liability = (Strict Liability – Exceptions)

Essentials of absolute liability

1. Hazardous Substance – The liability for an escaped substance will only become clear if the substance is considered hazardous or toxic under the current requirements. A substance must be considered hazardous because it is harmful, injurious, or likely to be harmful.

2. Escape – In order for the defendant to be held liable, it must be shown that the material that caused injury or damage escaped from the defendant’s possession or property under their authority. This means that the dangerous material must have escaped in such a way as to put a victim at risk and prove the defendant to be fully liable. Escape inside the building may also be considered full liability.

3. Non-natural use of land – It’s pretty clear what’s going on here. If you want to store water for your home, you can do it naturally. But if you want to store a lot of water in a reservoir, that’s not natural. You can grow trees or plants naturally, but if you’re trying to grow toxic plants, that’s not going to be natural.

4. Mischief – In order for the defendant to be held liable, the plaintiff must be able to prove that any dangerous chemical has been released into the environment and caused harm.

• Difference between Strict Liability and Absolute Liability

Sr. No. DifferenceAbsolute LiabilityStrict Liability
1. Level of DamageMass DamageLimited damage
2.DefenceNo DefenceMany Defences (Volenti fit injuria. Act of god, plaintiff’s own default)
3.ExceptionsNo exceptionAct of the third party, an act of god etc..
4.Degree of DamageIt depends on the capability of the company.Compensation is paid according to the nature and quantum of damage.
5.Element of EscapeNot necessaryNecessary

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