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Origin and meaning of the rule of Strict Liability and its exceptions

What is Strict Liability?

There are certain scenarios in life when a person can be held liable for some harm even if he has not been negligent or the primary cause of the same. The person remains liable even if there was no intention of harm or even if he had taken actions to avert the damage caused to the other party. This is the rule of strict liability.


Strict Liability on a signboard
If only this rule was as plain as this signboard :)

The Rule’s origin:

This rule was laid down by the House of Lords in the Rylands v. Fletcher case of 1868 which later came to be known as the Rule of Strict Liability is discussed below:


In this case, the defendant had a reservoir constructed over his land for providing water to his mill. The construction was undertaken by independent contractors.


There were some old and disused shafts under the site of the reservoir which, the contractors had failed to observe and therefore, block. The defendant had absolutely no knowledge about such shafts. When the reservoir was filled with water, it burst through the shafts and flooded the Plaintiff’s coal mines in the adjoining land. Even though he had not been negligent, nor had a mala fide intention, the defendant was held liable for the damages caused to the Plaintiff’s mines.


The basis of such a liability announced in this case was taken from the following rule propounded by J. Blackburn-


“We think that the rule of law is, that the person who for his own purposes brings on his lands 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 consequence of its escape.


He can excuse himself by showing that the escape was owing to the plaintiff's default; or perhaps that the escape was the consequence of vis major or the act of God; but as nothing of this sort exists here, it is unnecessary to inquire what excuse would be sufficient.”

The Rule Explained:

Blackburn had elaborated his rule with certain justifications according to which, if a person brings and keeps a dangerous thing on his land i.e. a thing which, on escape is likely to do mischief or cause damage then, such a person will be prima facie answerable for all the damages caused (if caused).


The liability under this rule does not arise from fault or negligence but from the sheer risk undertaken by the party in bringing and keeping a dangerous thing that could cause damage if it were to escape.

Therefore, the conditions for the applicability of this rule are:


1. Some dangerous thing brought by a person to his land:


Based on the cases on which the rule of strict liability has been applied are- Gas, Electricity, Vibrations, wild Animals and reptiles Sewage, flag-pole, explosives, noxious fumes, and rusty wires.


Basically, anything that satisfies the criteria of it escaping and likely to cause some damage is considered a dangerous thing under this rule.

2. The said thing is kept on the land must have escaped:

For the rule provided in Rylands v. Fletcher to apply, there must be an escape of the dangerous thing from the premises under the control or occupation of the defendant.

Illustration:

Suppose, if a bull is kept on your premises and it escapes through a gap in your property’s fencing and attacks a person on the adjacent land, you will be liable for such damage caused by the Bull even if you had no idea or intention to cause the same.

Some cases:

In Cheater v. Cater,

A poisonous tree had grown on the defendant’s land. The branches of this tree had projected out to the adjacent neighbour’s land. The cattle kept on the plaintiff’s land had eaten the leaves of the projected poisonous tree and were poisoned heavily. It was held that the dangerous thing (in this case a poisonous tree) had escaped and therefore, the defendant was held liable for the damages caused.

Another similar situation was observed in Ponting v. Noakes. But, in this case, the horse kept lawfully by the neighbour had reached out to eat the poisonous tree leaves by intruding over the fence ending up ultimately poisoning itself. The defendant was not held liable for any damages because there was no escape from the dangerous thing.

In Read v. Lyons and Co.,

The plaintiff had been an employee under the defendant’s ammunition factory. During her duty, a shell that was being manufactured at the factory had exploded which led to some serious injuries to the plaintiff. It was held that since the dangerous thing (the shell) had exploded and caused damage within the premises of the factory, the defendant could not be held liable under the rule of Strict Liability as there was no escape of the shell.

3. It must be non-natural use of land:

In the Rylands v. Fletcher case, the storage of a large amount of water in the reservoir was held to be a non-natural use of land as in common parlance storing a reasonable amount of water for domestic use is deemed “natural”. For the use to be non-natural, it –“must be of some special use bringing with it an increased danger to others, and must not merely by the ordinary use of land or such a use as is proper for the general benefit of the community”.


Under this rule, in T.C Balakrishnan Menon v. T.R. Subhramaniam, the use and storage of explosives in an open ground even on festive occasions is a non-natural use of land as under the Indian Explosives Act, licenses have to be taken from the prescribed authorities.


Exceptions to the rule of Strict Liability:

As time has passed by, the rule declared in 1868 has seen many changes and reprieves. Here some of the exceptions to the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher that have been observed throughout the years:

1. Plaintiff’s own fault:

If the plaintiff suffers damage due to his own interference or interception into the defendant’s property then the defendant shall not be liable under the strict liability. The previously mentioned case of Ponting v. Noakes is an excellent illustration of this exception.

2. Act of God

In Tennent v. Earl of Glasgow, an Act of God or vis major was defined as –

"Circumstances which no human foresight can provide against, and of which human prudence is not bound to recognize the possibility."

If the escape of a dangerous thing or the thing itself becomes hazardous and causes damage due to unforeseen circumstances like an epidemic, flood, earthquake, typhoon, landslide, etc., the defence of Act of God can be pleaded.

In Nichols v. Marsland,

A man dammed up all the water streams on his land to make artificial lakes for his own use. An unforeseen amount of rain was observed in that year which caused the lakes to overflow breaking the embankments. This rush of water destroyed the plaintiff’s four bridges. It was held that the defendant was not liable under the rule of Strict Liability as the damages were caused by an Act of God.


A flooded area with a house surrounded by extreme levels of water

However, in S.K. Shangrung Lamkang v. State of Manipur,

Two persons had died due to electrocution caused by an electric wire due to a storm and hit the two persons who were riding on a scooter. The wires had come off due to a lightning storm in that area.

The defendants argued that the wires had come off due to the intensity of the storm and pleaded Act of God as their defence. The Guwahati High Court, however, held the defendants liable for negligence by elaborating that-

The possibility of falling off high tension electric wire from its pole as a result of storm or lightning should have been reasonably anticipated by the respondents and as such appropriate steps should have been taken by them so that no harm was caused to when touched the fallen electric line



There could be no defence of an Act of God in this case.

3. Consent of the plaintiff:

The defence of Volenti non fit injuria can be claimed if the plaintiff had consented to the accumulation of a dangerous thing on the defendant’s land. Such consent is implied when the source of danger serves a common benefit. If a water tank is constructed above a building for common use, any damage caused by an escape of water or crumbling of the tank will not be actionable as it was constructed for “common benefit”- As in Carstair v. Taylor

In North-Western Utilities v. London Guarantee,

The residents living near and making use of any public utility undertaking such as gas or waterfall under “common benefit” and therefore, in case of damages, cannot make the defendant liable (if he wasn’t negligent)under this rule.

4. Act of a third party:

If the damages are caused by an act of a stranger i.e. a person who is neither the defendant’s servant nor a known acquaintance, the defendant will not be liable under the rule of Strict Liability. However, the act of a stranger should be unforeseeable, unpredictable, or an anomaly.


A stranger's silhouette in a forest- dark background


That is why, the defendant in Box v. Jabb when a few strangers had blocked the drainage of the reservoir resulting in its overflow causing damage to adjacent properties, was not held liable under this rule.

In M.P Electric Board v. Shall Kumar, it was held that if an accident was caused due to an unforeseeable act of a stranger, the rule of strict liability could not apply to the defendant. Read the full case, here.


In most cases involving Electrical Boards and other statutory bodies, the Indian Courts have usually awarded compensations on the grounds of negligence. They are not willing to concede grievous harm caused by the grids and wires to the public at large without holding the defendants (electricity boards and their contractors) liable. Here are some of the CASES for your reference.


5. Statutory Authority:

This one’s pretty simple really. One simply cannot be held liable under the rule of Strict Liability if his actions were ordered by the authority of a Statute, provided there was no negligence on the part of the actor.

In Green v. Chelsea Waterworks Co., the defendants had a statutory duty to maintain a steady supply of water. In due process of the operation and without any negligence on the company’s part, a few pipes burst and caused damage to the plaintiff’s premises nearby. The Company was not held liable for any damages as they had been ordered by statutory authority to do so.

Check out this space for more coverage on the Law of Torts, thank you for reading this far :)

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