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Strict Liability and Absolute Liability

Introduction

Generally, a person is liable for his own wrongful acts and one does not incur any liability for the acts done by others. In certain cases, the liability of one person for the act done by another person may arise. Such liability can further be classified as strict liability and absolute liability.

Strict Liability

This concept can be easily explained with the help of a landmark judgement Ryland v. Fletcher (1868). In this case, an independent contractor was hired by the defendant (Fletcher) to construct a reservoir of water on his land. The contractor while working, noticed some unused shafts in the ground and filled the gaps with rubbish. After the reservoir was constructed, the water entered the adjoining mines of the plaintiff through the underground tunnels, causing huge damage. Here, the liability of Fletcher will be a strict liability.

This rule says that a person can be held liable without there being any fault on his part. It is called strict liability. In the above case, Justice Blackburn said that “a person who for his own purpose, brings anything on his land and keeps it there, which is likely to escape and do mischief, must keep at his own peril.” Hence, if any damage is caused, such a person is answerable for all damages.

For the application of this principle, three things should be satisfied. It must involve a dangerous thing. The thing that causes damage must escape from the area of the defendant. There should be non-natural usage of land to make the defendant liable. This rule also has some exceptions. Under the following circumstances, the principle of strict liability is not applicable –

  1. When damage is caused due to an Act of God/ Vis major
  2. When the damage is caused by a stranger/ Act of a third party
  3. When the plaintiff himself is at fault
  4. Plaintiff has given consent/ volenti non fit injuria
  5. Statutory Authority

Absolute Liability

To put it in simple words, absolute liability can be defined as the rule of strict liability minus the exceptions. This rule evolved in the case of MC Mehta v. Union of India (1987). The case relates to harm caused by the escape of oleum gas from one unit of Shriram Foods and Fertilizers Industries. Justice Bhagwati held that the rule of Ryland V. Fletcher did not fully meet the needs of modern industries, where hazardous industries were necessary as a part of the development program.

Hence, it was necessary to lay down a new rule not yet recognized in English Law. It was decided that when an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous activity, and any harm is caused to anyone because of an accident, then such an enterprise shall be strictly and absolutely liable to compensate all those who are affected by the accident. Also, absolute liability is not subjected to any exceptions under the rule in Ryland v. Fletcher.

Difference between Strict and Absolute Liability

The element of escape which is essential in strict liability may be ignored in the case of absolute liability.This is because often incidents may arise where the escape of the dangerous thing like poisonous fumes, may not take place outside the industry premises but may damage the workers inside. Hence, the worker's right to compensation cannot be ignored. Therefore, the extent of this principle is to be applied in a wider context ruling out the element of escape.

Also, under strict liability compensation is paid according to the nature and quantum of damages caused to the plaintiff. However, in cases of absolute liability, the damages or compensation imposed is exemplary in nature. Hence, the compensation under absolute liability is comparatively greater. Also, in the case of strict liability, there are certain exceptions but under absolute liability, the defendant has no exceptions that he can use to defend himself.

Conclusion

The rule of strict liability and absolute liability can be seen as exceptions. A person is made liable only when he is at fault. But the principle governing these two rules is that a person can be made liable even without his fault. This is known as the principle of “nofault liability.”


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