Adblocker detected! Please consider reading this notice.

We've detected that you are using AdBlock Plus or some other adblocking software which is preventing the page from fully loading.

We need money to operate the site, and almost all of it comes from our online advertising.

Please add lawcorner.in to your ad blocking whitelist or disable your adblocking software.

×

Difference Between Strict Liability And Absolute Liability

Principles of strict liability and absolute liability are a branch of the tortious principle of no-fault liability. The principle of no-fault liability establishes the liability of a person who caused harm even if he was not negligent or did not have any intention to cause harm or even if he took some positive step to prevent the same. The rules of strict liability and absolute liability were laid down in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher[1] and MC Mehta v. Union of India[2] respectively. The aim of this article is to discuss various aspects of strict liability and absolute liability and highlight the difference between the two.

Strict Liability

Strict liability means that even if the defendant was not negligent or rather, even if the defendant did not intentionally cause the harm or he was careful, he could still be made liable under the rule. The rule of strict liability was laid down in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher[3].

Rylands v. Fletcher[4]

In this case, the defendant got a reservoir constructed through an independent contractor over his land for providing water to his mill. There were old disused shafts under the site of the reservoir, which the contractor failed to observe and so did not block them. When the water was filled in the said reservoir, the shaft broke down and flooded the plaintiff’s coal mine. The defendant did not know about the existence of such shafts and hence could not inform the independent contractors in return. It was contended that the defendant was not negligent and he had no vicarious liability for the acts of the independent contractor.

However, the court held that the person who brings on his land for his own purpose something that is likely to do mischief if it escapes, must be prima facie answerable for all the damage that is caused as a natural consequence of its escape.

The rule of strict liability has also been recognized in India in a plethora[5] of judgements.

Essentials For Application Of Rule Of Strict Liability

Rylands v. Fletcher[6] laid down the following three essentials for the rule of strict liability to be applicable:-

  1. Some dangerous thing brought on land
  2. Escape of the dangerous thing so brought
  3. Non- Natural use of land

Dangerous Thing

A thing can be said to be dangerous when it is likely to cause a mischief if it escapes from the land. In the case of Rylands v. Fletcher[7] the water collected in such a large quantity was held to be dangerous. Whether a thing is dangerous or not depends on the facts of the case. A few of the things which have been held to be dangerous include gas[8], explosives[9], noxious fumes[10] and rusty wiring[11].

Escape

The second essential for the application of the rule of strict liability is that the dangerous thing that has been brought on the land has escaped the land. The phenomenon of escape can be understood by the following two illustrations-

a) if there is projection of the branches of a poisonous tree on the neighbor’s land, it amounts to an escape.[12]

b) if the plaintiff’s horse intrudes over the boundary and dies by nibbling the leaves of the poisonous tree, the defendant cannot be held liable as there is no escape in this case.[13]

Non-natural Use Of Land

In order for the use of land to be non-natural, there must be some special use such that it increases the danger to others and must not merely be an ordinary use of land or use as is proper for the general benefit of the community or for public benefit.[14]

In the case of T.C. Balakrishnan Menon v. T.R. Subramanian[15] it was held that the use of explosives in an open ground on a festival day was non-natural use of land. The reason was that under the Explosives Act, for making and storing explosive substances even on such places and at such occasions, licenses have to be obtained.

Exception/ Defenses To The Rule Of Strict Liability

In order to avoid its liability under the rule of strict liability, the following defenses can be taken by a defendant-

Plaintiff’s Own Fault

If the escape of the dangerous substance has been owing to the fault of the plaintiff himself, the defendant cannot be held liable under the rule of strict liability.[16] For instance, in the case of Ponting v. Noakes[17], the plaintiff’s horse intruded into the defendant’s land and nibbled on some poisonous leaves, and died. The defendant was not held liable because the damage would not have occurred had the horse remained out of the defendant’s premises.

VIS Major

Vis Major or Act of God was considered as a defense in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher[18] itself. Justice Blackburn defined an act of God as:

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

In the case of Vohra Sadikbhai Rajakbhai v. State of Gujarat[19], the Supreme Court of India relied upon a similar definition of act of God. It stated that:

“An act of God is that which is 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. Generally, those acts which are occasioned by the elementary forces of nature, unconnected with the agency of man or other cause will come under the category of act of God.”

In the case of Nichols v. Marsland[20] the defendant had created on his land, an artificial lake by damming a natural water body. That year there was extraordinarily heavy rainfall due to which the streams and lakes, which were sufficiently strong enough for normal rain, gave away. The water washed down and the plaintiff’s four bridges washed away. The plaintiffs brought an action against the defendants for recovery of damage. It was held that the defendants were not liable under the rule of strict liability as it was an act of God.

In the case of Vohra Sadikbhai Rajakbhai v. State of Gujarat[21], the respondents had constructed and maintained a dam. 60,000 cusecs of water from the dam was released, which flooded the land of the appellants and destroyed the plantation therein. As per the respondents, the water had to be released from the dam as it had reached an alarming level because of heavy rains and non- release would have breached the dam. Thus, the action was taken in public interest due to an act of God. However, the Supreme Court held that the defendant will be liable to pay damages as it was its duty so to work as to make other occupiers as secure against injury as they would have been had nature not been interfered with. Thus, it was held that it was the duty of the defendant to indicate what anticipatory measures he has taken. A test was laid down that what needs to be examined is as to whether the damage to the property of the appellant was as a result of an inevitable accident which could not possibly be prevented by the exercise of ordinary care, caution and skill.

Volenti Non Fit Injuria

Volenti non fir injuria, i.e., where the plaintiff has consented to the accumulation of the dangerous thing on the defendant’s land, the liability under the rule of strict liability does not arise. Such a consent maybe implicit or explicit. The consent is implied when the source of danger is for the ‘common benefit’ of both the parties.

In the case of Carstairs v. Taylor[22], the plaintiff rented the ground floor of the building owned by the defendant. The upper floor was occupied by the defendant himself. On the defendant’s floor, large quantity of water was stored. The water seeped down and destroyed the goods stored by the plaintiff. However, since the water was stored for the benefit of both the defendant and the plaintiff, the defendant was not held liable under the rule of strict liability.

Act Of Third Party

If the harm to the plaintiff has been caused by the act of a third party, the defendant will not be held liable under the rule of strict liability. However, such third party must not be a servant of the defendant or he must not be in control of the defendant.

In the case of Rickards v. Lothian[23], some stranger third- party blocked the waste pipes of a wash basin, which was otherwise in control of the defendants, and opened the tap. As a result, the plaintiff’s goods were destroyed. The defendant was not held liable in this case.

However, if the action of the third party is or can be foreseen by the defendant, he cannot take the defense that the damage was caused by the action of a stranger third party. In the case of M.P. Electricity Board v. Shail Kumar[24], the rule of strict liability was applied and the defect of the dangerous thing being an ‘act of the stranger’ was not allowed because the same could have been foreseen. Thus, the authorities manning such dangerous commodities have an extra duty of care to prevent damage.

Absolute Liability

Unlike the rule of strict liability, the rule of absolute liability is a unique feature to India. It was laid in the case of MC Mehta v. Union of India[25]. In this case, the Supreme Court was dealing with the case of leakage of oleum gas in one of the units of Shriram Foods and Fertilizers Industries in Delhi. As a result of the leakage of the gas, an advocate practicing in the Tez Hazari court lost his life and several other people were harmed. Accordingly, a writ petition under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution was filed in the Supreme Court by way of a Public Interest Litigation. In this case, the Supreme Court noted that the rule of strict liability was inadequate when the thing that is brought on the land are ‘hazardous and inherently dangerous’.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court took a brave decision and decided that they were not bound to adhere to the 19th-century rule of strict liability and the principle of strict liability needs to be amended according to the social and economic conditions of India. Thus, it evolved the rule of absolute liability from the rule of strict liability itself.

No Exceptions To The Rule Of Absolute Laibility

The Supreme Court in the case of MC Mehta v. Union of India[26] itself laid down that the rule of absolute liability will not be subject to any exceptions. The reason for the same is two folds-

  1. An enterprise which is carrying on an activity that is hazardous and inherently dangerous, for its profit, has a social obligation to compensate those suffering therefrom.
  2. The enterprise itself has the resources to discover and guard against such hazards and dangers.

Compensation

The Supreme Court also laid down the rule that the compensation to the victims should be directly proportional to the magnitude and capacity of the enterprise. The reason was that the compensation so granted should have a deterrent effect on the other enterprises as well.[27]

Application Of The Rule Of Absolute Liability

In the case of Gittam Ram v. State of Jammu and Kashmir[28] the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir discussed the liability of an enterprise generating, transmitting, supplying or using electricity of high voltage. It was held that such a person or company has to endure that proper precautions are taken to ensure that such electric current will not escape. The basis of such liability is a foreseeable risk and the inherent danger of the very activity.

Following the dictum of MC Mehta v. Union of India[29], the Supreme Court in the case of Indian Council For Enviro- Legal Action v. Union of India[30] imposed an absolute liability on an enterprise carrying on activities which were hazardous and inherently dangerous to life. In this case, the writ petition was directed against the Central and the State Government and the State Pollution Control Board to perform their statutory duty.

Difference Between Strict Liability And Absolute Liability

STRICT LIABILITY ABSOLUTE LIABILITY
The principle of strict liability makes the defendant strictly liable where he brings something on his land which constitutes as non-natural use of land and when that thing escapes the land, it causes injury to the plaintiff. The principle of absolute liability makes the defendant absolutely liable where he carries on an activity that is hazardous and inherently dangerous.
The principle of strict liability was laid down in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher[31] The principle of absolute liability was laid down in the case of MC Mehta v. Union of India[32]
It is subject to certain exceptions like vis major, act of a third party, volenti non fit injuria etc. It has no exceptions.

 Conclusion

The rules of strict liability and absolute liability are applied where the defendant was not negligent, but some injury was caused because of something that he has brought on his land. The principles place a higher duty of care on a person who makes a non-natural use of his land or brings carries on an activity that is hazardous and inherently dangerous. However, the rule of absolute liability is stricter and offers no defense to a person or company engaged in an activity that is hazardous and inherently dangerous.

[1] (1868) LR 3 HL 330

[2] AIR 1987 SC 1086

[3] (1868) LR 3 HL 330

[4] (1868) LR 3 HL 330

[5] Charan Lal Sahu v. Union of India, AIR 1990 SC 1480; Gujrat State Road Transport Corporation v. Ramanbhai Prabhatbhai, 1987 SC 1690; Kaushnuma Begam v. New Assurance Co. Ltd, AIR 2001 SC 485; MC Mehta v. Union of India, AIR 1987 SC 1086; MS Grewal v. Deep Chand Sood, AIR 2001 SC 3660; D.K. Basu v. State of West Bengal, AIR 1997 SC 610.

[6] (1868) LR 3 HL 330

[7] (1868) LR 3 HL 330

[8] Batcheller v. Tunbrige Wells Gas Co, (190) 84 LT 765; North Western Utilities Ltd v. London Guarantee and Accident Co., (1936) AC 108.

[9] T.C. Balakrishnan v. T.R. Subramanian, AIR 1968 Ker 151; Rainham Chemical Works v. Belvedere Fish Gauno Co., (1921) 2 AC 465; Read v. Lyons, (1947) AC 156.

[10] West v. Bristol Tramways Co, (1908) 2 K.B. 14.

[11] Firth v. Bowling Iron Co., (1878) CPD 254.

[12] Crowhurst v. Amersham Burial Board, (1878) 4 Ex D. 5; Cheater v. Cater, (1908) AC 156.

[13] Ponting v. Noakes, (1994) 2 Q.B. 281.

[14] Rickards v. Lothian, (1913) AC 263.

[15] AIR 1968 Ker 151.

[16] Rylands v. Fletcher, (1868) LR 3 HL 330

[17] (1849) 2 QB 281

[18] (1868) LR 3 HL 330

[19] (2016) 12 SCC 1

[20] (1876) 2 Ex D. 1

[21] (2016) 12 SCC 1

[22] (1871) L.R. 6 Ex. 217

[23] (1913) A.C. 263

[24] AIR 2002 SC 551

[25] AIR 1987 SC 1086

[26] AIR 1987 SC 1086

[27] MC Mehta v. Union of India, AIR 1987 SC 1086

[28] AIR 2013 J&K 83; MS Grewal v. Deep Chand Sood, AIR 2001 SC 3660; D.K. Basu v. State of W.B., AIR 1997 SC 610; Ramesh Singh Pawar v. MPEB, AIR 2005 MP 2; Ex Engineer, CESU Cuttack v. Hema Sethy, (2011) 11 OLR 708; Pramila Khatua v. CESU of Orissa, AIR 2013 Ori 95.

[29] AIR 1987 SC 1086

[30] AIR 1996 SC 1446

[31] (1868) LR 3 HL 330

[32] AIR 1987 SC 1086

Note – The information contained in this post is for general information purposes only. We try our level best to avoid any misinformation or abusive content. If you found any of such content on this website, please report us at info@lawcorner.in

Interested to publish your article on our website? Click Here to submit your article.

Aakriti Gupta

Aakriti Gupta is a final year student of BA LLB in Army Institute of Law, Mohali. She is also pursuing the Company Secretary course. She has interned with various companies, firms and advocates in the capacity of a legal intern/ researcher. She is an avid mooter and has participated in various national and international moot court competitions, client competitions and trial advocacy competitions.