This article is written by Anjali Dhingra, IInd year student, B.B.A. LL.B, Symbiosis Law School, NOIDA. In this article, the author discusses the Strict liability principle, its essentials, defences and how it evolved to the principle of absolute liability in India. The article also mentions the difference between strict and absolute liability.
Introduction to Strict Liability
The concept of strict liability was introduced in the late nineteenth century. It has been evolved from the concept of negligence which generally refers to a careless activity. It involves a duty of care towards one’s neighbours and breach of such duty results into damage caused to the neighbours. If there is negligence on the part of the defendant, he/she is held liable to compensate the plaintiff for the damage caused. Whereas, under strict liability, the defendant is held liable irrespective of the presence of any negligence on his part.
Strict liability was initially introduced in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher  in 1868. The case was treated as an aspect of nuisance or a special rule of strict liability. The defendant, in order to improve his water supply, constructed a reservoir by employing reputed engineers. There was negligence on the part of contractors that they didn’t seal the mine shafts which they came across while constructing the reservoir due to which water flooded into plaintiff’s coal mine resulting into damage to the mines of the plaintiff.
The plaintiff sued Fletcher for damages. The engineers were independent contractors and thus were not held liable. Justice Blackburn J. held the defendant liable by introducing the concept of strict liability which states that “The rule of law is that the person who, for his own purpose, 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 consequence of its escape. ”
It simply means that the defendant will be held liable without any negligence or ‘fault’ on his part. Thus it was proved out to be a ‘No fault liability’. It does not matter if the defendant has intended to cause such damage or not.
In other words, this principle held a person strictly liable if the following essentials are applicable simultaneously:
- Some dangerous thing must have been brought by a person on his land: It is necessary that the thing brought on the land is dangerous. A dangerous thing is defined as something which poses an exceptionally high risk to the neighbouring property such as electricity, vibrations, explosives etc.
- It must be non-natural use of land: It is the unusual use of land which amounts to special hazards, judged by the standards appropriate at the relevant place and time such as constructing a water reservoir.
- The thing thus brought or kept by the person must escape: It is essential that the thing causing damage must escape in the area outside the occupation or control of the defendant such as the escape of extremely dangerous wild dogs from an individual’s property in the locality.
- The damaged caused should be foreseeable to the defendant: Foreseeability of damage is essential to claim damages in cases of strict liability such as accidents in a cracker factory in very much foreseeable to the owner as well as workers of the factory.
Exceptions to Strict Liability
- Act of God: Acts which are occasioned by the forced nature and cannot be controlled by the agency of men such as earthquake, lightning, severe frost, storm etc. Comes under the category of the act of god.
- The wrongful act of the third party: The defendant cannot be held liable if the damaged caused is due to an inevitable accident or wrongful act of a third party.
- Plaintiff’s own fault: The defendant cannot be held liable in case damage caused to the plaintiff is because of his own default. For example, if the plaintiff enters into defendant’s garden without his permission and consumes some toxic fruits which caused damage to his health.
- Artificial work maintained for the common benefit of both plaintiff and defendant: The defendant cannot be held responsible for damage caused by a source which was equally beneficial to the plaintiff or either consented by the plaintiff such as sharing the same building or a common water resource.
- Acts of statutory authority: no one can be held liable for doing acts which the legislature has authorised provided it is done without any negligence on their part such as a municipal corporation.
Criticisms or drawbacks of Strict Liability
After the principle of strict liability was established, many cases were filed under the rule applied in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher. But, after dealing with various cases, the house of lords felt that the laws so formed in the nineteenth century were no longer applicable in this modern era. Most of the times it occurred that all the essentials of the principle were not applicable thus they didn’t found the cases to be justifiable. Some of them are discussed below:
Read v. J. Lyons & Co.  (escape of the dangerous thing):
In this case, the defendant took control of the management of an ordinance factory where highly explosive shells for the government were made. An explosion inside the factory caused damage to the plaintiff and several others.
When plaintiff asked for damages under the principle of strict liability, since there was no negligence on the part of the authorities, THE HOUSE OF LORDS upheld the decision and said that although there was an unnatural use of land, no escape of dangerous thing occurred. Thus, no compensation was granted on part of the defendant.
Cambridge water co. Ltd. V. Eastern Countries Leather Plc  (Foreseeability of damage):
The plaintiff was a company licensed to water supply while the defendant was a company engaged in manufacturing of fine leather. The defendant company used a volatile solvent known as perchloroethylene (PCE) which seeped into the ground and slowly in 9 months, got mixed with plaintiff’s borehole water 1.3 miles away.
After detection of the chemical, the plaintiff’s borehole was ceased to be wholesome and could not be lawfully supplied. When plaintiff claimed damages, THE HOUSE OF LORDS in negativing the claim said that this kind of percolation could not be foreseen by the defendant and thus, the defendant could not be held liable for the damages claimed.
Transco plc v. Stockport MBC  (non-natural use of land):
The plaintiff installed a gas main along an embankment on the stretch of a disused railway line. The defendant laid a tower block of flats which was supplied with water by means of water pipe which the defendant has constructed between the tower block and the water main. The water pipe once fractured and discharged water leading to the collapse of the embankment.
The plaintiff was compelled to do the considerable work to remedy the situation and claimed damages on the rule of Rylands v. Fletcher. The HOUSE OF LORDS in negativing the claim held that the provision of water supply to large blocks of flats did not amount to a special hazard constituting an extraordinary use of land.
Some Indian Cases where the rule of Rylands v. Fletcher was cited
- State of Punjab v. Modern cultivators, AIR 1965 SC 17
- Jay Luxmi Salt Works (p.) Ltd. V. State of Gujrat, (1994) 4 SCC 1
- Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action v. Union of India, AIR 1996 SC 1446
- Gujarat SRTC v. Ramanbhai Prabhatbhai (1987) 3 SCC 234
Some English Cases where the rule of Rylands v. Fletcher was cited
- Rainham Chemical Works Ltd. V. Belvedere Fish Guano Co. (1921) 2 AC 465
- Hoare & Co. V. McAlpine, (1923) 1 Ch 167
- West v. Bristol Tramways co., (1908) 2 KB 14
- Musgrove v. Pandelis, (1919) 2 KB 43
Evolution in the concept of strict liability
Case: M. C. Mehta v. Union of India 
The case was related to the leakage of oleum gas from one of the units of Shriram Foods and fertilizer industries which lead to several deaths and injuries in Delhi and NCR region. The petitioner M. C. Mehta filed a PIL under Article 32 of the Indian constitution against the dangerous effects of the chemicals used in the factory. Moreover, the Delhi legal aid and advise board claimed compensation for the damages so caused. The court asked the company to pay the compensation and to shut down the factory in those regions and introduced a new concept of “Absolute Liability”.
Concept of Absolute Liability
Where an enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and it results in harm to anyone on account of an accident which was caused in the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity. This will make the enterprise absolutely liable to compensate all those who are affected by the accident and such liability is not subject to any of the exceptions or any Strict liability principle as held in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher. For example, if there is an escape of toxic gas, the enterprise is strictly or absolutely liable to compensate all those who are affected by the accident with no exception to the case. 
The court earlier pointed out this duty is “Absolute and non-delegable” and the enterprise cannot escape liability by showing that it had taken all reasonable care and there was no negligence on its part and thus is named as “No liability”
The basis of the new rule as indicated by the supreme court was:
- If an enterprise is allowed to carry on any hazardous activity, it is presumed that such permission is conditional on the enterprise absorbing the cost of any accident arising on account of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity as an appropriate item of its overheads.
- The enterprise alone has the resource to discover and guard against hazards or dangers and to provide warning against potential hazards.
Reasoning given by the court in its judgement:
The judgement made on 20/12/1986 by the supreme court in the bench of three judges including CJ P. N. Bhagwati, D. P. Madon and G .L. OZA gave the following justification:
The law so laid by the English govt. in case of Rylands v. Fletcher was justifiable according to the demands of law at that time. But it is not necessary or binding to the Indian government to strictly follow the rule so laid in the late 19th century because in the modern industrial society with highly developed scientific knowledge and technology, where it is necessary to run hazardous or inherently dangerous industries as a part of the development programme.
This rule was laid in the 19th century when this type of development in science and technology has not taken place as compared to today’s economy and social structure. Law needs to be kept changing according to the needs of the society and evolving social structure. Law cannot afford to remain static.
We need to evolve new principles and laid down new and amended rules which could adequately deal with the problems of a new and industrialised economy. We cannot allow judicial thinking to be restricted to the laws laid down in England or any other country.
We can take light from these sources but we need to make our own jurisprudence. We have to evolve according to the needs and circumstances of our own country. We have to develop new laws and develop new principles to deal with the unusual situation so aroused and likely to arise in future.
Cases citing the case of “M. C. Mehta v. Union of India”
- Jagdish v Naresh Soni, (2007) 3 MPHT 234
- Vellore citizens Welfare Forums and others v. Union of India and another 2016 Indlaw MAD 4514, 2016 (4) MLI 25
- Charudatt Pandurang Koli and others v Sea lord Containers Limited, Mumbai and others 2015 Indlaw MAD 849
- Jaipur Golden Gas victim Association v Union of India and others 2009 Indlaw DEL 2902, 2010(1) ACC 141, 2011 ACJ 1879, 2009 (164) DLT 346
- Vimal Bhai and others v Union of India and others 2009 Indlaw DEL 83, 2009 (157) DLT 477, 2009 (2) ESC 1071
Why the need for the change was felt?
Rylands v. Fletcher and M. C. Mehta v. Union of India: A comparative analysis
Many drawbacks or loopholes in the principle of strict liability; or we can say outdatedness of the concept with the change in time and technological advancements lead to the introduction of new concept or amendment of old concept from “strict liability” or “No-Fault Liability” to “Absolute Liability” or “No Liability”.
- The rule of Rylands v. Fletcher includes non-natural use of land and escape of the dangerous thing from the land whereas the rule in the case of M. C. Mehta v. Union of India requires that the defendant should be engaged in an inherently dangerous activity which will result in harm to anyone.
- The rule of Rylands v. Fletcher does not includes harm caused inside the premises whereas the MC Mehta v Union of India covers all the damages caused inside as well as outside the premises.
- Though the rule of Rylands v. Fletcher is strict as it does not depends on the negligence on the part of the defendant but is not absolute as it is not subject to many exceptions whereas the rule of MC Mehta v Union of India is strict as well as absolute with subject to no exceptions.
- The damages provided in case of Rylands v. Fletcher were ordinary or compensatory whereas, in the case of MC Mehta v. Union of India, the court can allow exemplary damages and the larger and more prosperous the enterprise, the greater must be the amount of compensation payable by it.
Basis of distinction
Rylands v. Fletcher
MC Mehta v Union of India
Harm inside premise
Does not cover harm caused inside the premise
Covers all the damages caused inside as well as outside the premises
Liability is strict with exceptions
Liability is absolute without any exception
Ordinary and compensatory
Exemplary damages depending upon the size of the organisation
Note: In the case of “Charan Lal Sahu v. Union of India” , Mishra C.J. expressed doubts related to the rule for damages in case of MC Mehta v Union of India that the case was obiter dicta and a departure from law applied in western countries.
However, this doubt was not accepted in the case of “Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action v. Union of India”  where it was held that the rule so applied was not obiter dicta and suited to the circumstances prevailing in the country.
Therefore, the principle of strict liability, later to be known as absolute liability, was established as the principle of “No Liability”
We conclude that the journey of the concept of strict liability was started from being a “No Fault liability” where the defendant was held liable even when there is no fault on his part. But with the change of time and circumstances, the applicability of this principle was needed to be amended according to the needs of the people because in many of the cases, where the plaintiff was worth compensation for his damages, was not granted compensation on the basis of the rule of strict liability. Since the law needs to be amended with the evolution, the concept of absolute liability was introduced with no exceptions or defences i.e. “No Liability” with regards to the use of an inherently dangerous substance in industries.
Dhirajlal, R.&.(2016).The Law of TORTS.Gurgaon: LexisNexis
- Rylands v. Fletcher, (1868) LR 3 HL 330
- Fletcher v. Rylands, (1866) LR 1 Ex 265, 279
- Read v. J. Lyons & Co. (1947) AC 156 (HL)
- Cambridge water co. Ltd. V. Eastern Countries Leather Plc, (1994) 1 All ER 53 (HL)
- Transco plc v. Stockport MBC, (2003) 3 WLR 1467 (HL)
- M. C. Mehta v. Union of India, (1987) 1 SCC 395
- M. C. Mehta v. Union of India, (1987) 1 SCC 395, P. 421. Approved (except as to the quantum of damages) in Charan Lal Sahu v. Union of India, (1990) 1 SCC 613
- Charan Lal Sahu v. Union of India (1990) 1 SCC 613
- Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action v. Union of India, (1996) 3 SCC 212