STRICT LIABILITY UNDER LAW OF TORTS

Author: Mudra Motivaras, 1st Year, LL.B, Jitendra Chauhan Law College, Mumbai. The articles have been written by the author while pursuing the internship programme with us. Introduction Sometimes it may happen that a person is held liable for a wrongful act which he may not have done or he has done all the possible acts to avoid the harm or consequences of his act but he will still be held liable. This is called Strict liability where a person is held liable even at places where he is at no fault. The law recognises such rules and this is based on the principle of ‘no fault liability’. Here, the accused has a duty to care towards the victim. When this duty is breached, it is not necessary for the accused to prove any intention or mens rea on his part and he is strictly liable for the offence committed. For example: a manufacturer of millions of packets of food can be held liable if there is fault even in one packet of food irrespective of his intention. Not only people who have a direct relation with the defendant like a purchaser of any particular product but also those who do not have any direct relation with the defendant can sue under strict liability. Under strict liability, the burden of proof lies on the plaintiff and not on the defendant. The plaintiff has to prove that there was a duty to care on part of the defendant, there was a breach of duty and due to this plaintiff suffered injuries. The background of strict liability lies in the days of industrialization where consent for safety of workers working in any factory was given by his/her owner and it was at times very difficult for the owner of the factory to prove that there was no intention on his part if any mishap occurred to the workers. Consequently, many criminal litigation took place between trade unions and owners. But the rule of strict liability also called ‘The Wild Beast Theory’ was propounded in Rylands v. Fletcher.[1] Rylands v. Fletcher In this case, the defendant employed an independent contract for the construction of an artificial reservoir. The contractor’s workers, while excavating the soil, discovered some unused shafts and passages which connect with the mines of the plaintiff in the adjoining land. The works filled the shaft and passages with mud negligently. After construction of the reservoir when the water was filled, it burst through shafts and flooded towards the plaintiff’s minThe mine was destroyed and the plaintiff sued for damages. The question here arises was whether the defendant was responsible or the independent contractor for the negligent act? The court held that the defendant liable by applying the principle of strict liability. To justify the decision, the court held that if any person brings any dangerous thing on his premises, he brings it at his peril and he will be liable if it escapes and causes any kind of damage to another person. In this case, three essential elements of strict liability were considered: 1. Dangerous thing: the defendant will be strictly liable only if a ‘dangerous substance’ escapes from his premises. In the above case, the thing so collected was a large body of water which is a dangerous thing. 2. Escape: the dangerous thing shall escape the premises and shouldn’t be within the reach of the defendant. Escape must be outside the occupation and control of the defendant. 3. Non- natural use: there shall be a non-natural use of land. In the above case, water collected in such a huge quantity was held as non-natural use of land. Exceptions to strict liability ⮚ Natural use of land: if any dangerous thing naturally grows on the premises of the defendant then he will not be liable for the damage caused. ⮚ Plaintiff’s own fault: if the plaintiff suffers damage due to his own intrusion in the defendant’s property then there will be no liability. In ponting v. Noakes, the plaintiff’s horse intruded into the defendant’s premises and ate the poisonous leaves of a poisonous tree which the defendant had grown on his premises. The horse died due to poisonous leaves. The defendant was not held liable as there was no escape from the dangerous thing but it was the plaintiff ‘s own fault.[2] ⮚ Act of god: this means that there should be some natural force and events must be extraordinary. In Nichols v. Marsland, the defendant constructed a reservoir and one night due to heavy rain, the reservoir overflowed and damaged certain barges of the plaintiff. The defendant was not liable as it was an act of god.[3] ⮚ Consent of plaintiff: if the plaintiff has consented to the accumulation of a dangerous thing on the defendant’s premises, there will be no liability. ⮚ Act of third party: if the mischief is done due to the act of a third party, who is neither the servant of the defendant nor the defendant has any control over him. No liability exists in this case. In box v. Jubb, water overflowed from the defendant’s reservoir due to blocking of drain by a stranger. Defendant was not liable.[4] ⮚ Statutory authority: if the defendant is authorised by the government to accumulate dangerous things on his land then he will not be liable if it escapes or causes damage. Indian Judiciary’s view on Strict liability: The rule of strict liability is a very old rule and it cannot be applied in the current scenario where industrial and technological development is very important for a country like India. Therefore, a new doctrine called ‘absolute liability’ was evolved first in the case of M.C Mehta v. Union of India. In this case, on 4th-5th December 1985, Oleum gas was leaked in a unit of Shriram Food and Fertilizers Industry in Delhi belonging to Delhi Cloth Mills ltd. Due to the leakage, one advocate practicing in Hazari court died and many others were affected. M.C Mehta filed a writ petition under article 32 by way of public interest litigation claiming compensation for the losses and also demanded that the closed enterprise shall not restart.[5] Subsequently, on 2nd -3rd December 1985, a tragedy took place in Bhopal where methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked which killed around 3000 people and 1.5 lakh people were injured. This created a huge panic and there was a need for absolute liability as strict liability was subject to many exceptions which can not stop such disasters.[6] In these both cases, defendants were prevented from taking any defence provided under strict liability and rules of ‘absolute liability’ were applied which stated that If any industry or enterprise is engaged in any hazardous activity and if any harm is caused in the defendant will not have excess to any defences and will be absolutely liable. Justice Bhagwati also stated that ‘the rule of strict liability was evolved in 19th century, the time when nature industrial developments was at primary stage, in today’s modern industrial society where hazardous or inherently dangerous industries are necessary to carry out development programme, thus this old rule cannot be held relevant in present day context. Also one cannot feel inhibited by this.’ Also, in Taj Trapezium case, a petition was filed in supreme court for the purpose of relocation of 292 industries which were major polluters of Taj Mahal and further to direct them to use natural gas instead of industrial fuel. In the light of absolute liability, the court here applied the ‘polluter pays’ principle which says that once the activity carried on is hazardous or inherently dangerous, the person carrying such activity is liable to make good the loss caused to any person irrespective of the fact whether he took reasonable care or not. Industries are absolutely liable for the harm caused to the villagers in the affected area, to the soil and to the underground water and hence they are bound to take all necessary measures to remove sludge and other pollutants lying in the affected areas.[7] Difference between strict and absolute liability: 1. Any person can be held liable in strict liability whereas in absolute liability, an enterprise indulge in any dangerous or hazardous activity can be held liable. Also, even in single death without any massive disaster, absolute liability can be upheld. 2. Escape of dangerous things is necessary in strict liability whereas in absolute liability, enterprise will be liable even if there is no escape. 3. Defences are available under strict liability whereas in absolute liability, the defendant has no excess to defend. Conclusion: New amendments are necessary from time to time. With industrial and technological advancement, we cannot rely on centuries old rules. Also, if we talk about India, it is rich with agriculture and 60% of India’s population depends upon agriculture for livelihood. So for the purpose of irrigation, farmers need to store water in such a huge quantity. The principle applied in Rylands v. Fletcher is a two centuries old principle and it cannot be used in the modern world. Though the rule of strict liability makes good to those who genuinely took reasonable care to avoid the damage but in case of massive disaster the rule of absolute liability is necessary. So that each and every person who is affected can be repaid. The rule of strict and absolute liability both say the same thing that a person will be liable even if he is at no fault. But the rule of strict liability is subject to some exceptions while in absolute liability there are no defences. Some laws which are not applicable according to Indian context have been modified with new amendments but some are yet to be modified. Many countries have accepted the rule of absolute liability over strict liability. In India, the need for absolute liability was seen only after two disastrous incidents of Bhopal Gas Tragedy and Oleum gas leak. Thus, these two were landmark judgments of Supreme Court. References: [1] Rylands v. Fletcher, U.K.H.L. 1, (1868) L.R 3 HL, 330. [2] Ponting v. Noakes, (1849) 2 QB 281. [3] Nichols v. Marsland, [1876] 2 Ex D 1. [4] Box v. Jubb, L.R. (4) EX Div 76. [5] M.C Mehta v. U.O.I., (1987) S.C.R. (1) 819, A.I.R. (1987) 965. [6] Union Carbide Corporation v. U.O.I., (1990) A.I.R. 273, (1989) S.C.C. [7] M.C Mehta v. U.O.I., (1987) A.I.R. 1086, (1987) S.C.R. Disclaimer: Views and opinions as expressed in the Research Articles are solely of the author and any member of the core team of the website shall not be liable for the same.

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