Is the Principle of Strict Liability Relevant today?

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This article is written by Aryan Pujari a first year student of Amity Law School, Raipur, Chattisgarh

  • Changing laws with changing time-

Laws are made for the society and as society is dynamic so do laws. But in Common Law System the best part is that most of the laws are results of judgments and few judgments sets out principles which are later on modified. Ultimately these principles become that piece of puzzle which fits even in the modern era. The Common Law Procedure Act, 1852, freed the common law of the previous bonds imposed upon the development of its principles by the mediaeval forms of action[1]. This is because the ancient laws applicable for a pastoral society can’t be applicable to the industrial society and justice Blackburn followed up what was deemed fit by the circumstance at that point of time.

  • Ryland v. Fletcher[2] fact and principles-

The defendant got a reservoir constructed, through independent contractors, over his land the providing water to his mill. There were unused shafts under the reservoir, which the contractor failed to observe and repair those. When water was filled in the reservoir, it burst through the shafts and flooded the plaintiff’s coal mine on the adjoining land. The defendant had no knowledge about the shafts though the contractors were but still he was held liable.

Principle set out by Blackburn j.-“ “..any person, who for his own intentions brings on to his land, accumulates and keeps on that land anything likely to cause trouble if it escapes, must keep it at his own risk , and, if he does not do so is prima facie, answerable for all the damage which is the natural effect of its escape.”

Breaking down the judgment the following ingredients comes up-

  1. Some dangerous thing must have been brought by the person.
  2. The thing brought or kept must
  3. It must be a non-natural use of land.

This form of liability is also known as Strict liability. NOW biggest question is that whether this principle have any relevance? For that lets first have glance whether all the conditions mentioned herein are satisfied or not.

  1. The very first rule denotes the thing brought to the property whether good or dangerous in Rylands v Fletcher the defendant bought water onto his land.

In Healy v Bray, a rock had dislodged from the defendant’s land and rolled down the hill towards the plaintiff. The court held since the rock was there naturally and part of the land itself, it was not bought onto the land [3].

  1. The second condition is “escape”. Here in this case the heavy amount of water escaped and damaged the coal mine of the plaintiff adjacent to the defendant’s land. In furtherance of this escape it caused two wrongs firstly negligence and secondly private nuisance. Even if he had no knowledge but ultimately it led to destruction of someone else property that to in a higher degree.
  2. Prima-facie it’s a non-natural use of land because domestic use of water may simply be defined with a limited amount, there is no need of having a reservoir, it’s a non-natural use of land.

Hence all the conditions are satisfied.

  • Need of Strict liability in the modern days-

The biggest question of this article What is the position and need of strict liability today? The answer is Strict liability have a major role to play today as compared to may be 150-200 years ago. Today technology has been advanced and reached to another level but none the less it’s a threat to mankind. Because of the following reason it has ultimate significance today-

  1. Alarm for those keeping something dangerous-

Here at first, we need to understand the meaning of dangerous and its very much subjective. Any thing contained in excess and pose a threat for others is termed as dangerous. E.g.- I am burning a few woods for a celebration with in my premises is not a danger but instead I am setting fire on a big wood block is a danger because there are chances that my neighbor hood may catch fire. By setting no fault liability its alarm for every person to be extra cautionary when ever conducting something of same nature.

  1. For higher good of the society-

We have already witnessed in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher that the damage incurred by the plaintiff is of higher degree but was substantial but it could have killed a mass number of people if they were present at that point of time. It’s clear that act of such nature not only amount to a huge substantial loss but also carry a threat for taking multiple lives. Hence any compensation so charged are for the higher good of society even without any negligence on the part of defendant. Also, it sets an example that restrain any other person to take such risks.

  1. Fit for the industrial era-

Today we are surrounded by a number of industries and so do with bulk of cases where heavy mechanics as well as bio-chemical productions took lives of millions. And as explained above it sets alarm for these industrialists to introspect a bit deeper with in their industries. The adoption of “absolute liability” which is even stricter in sense in cases like Bhopal gas tragedy and M.C. Mehta v. Union of India[4]. We have seen the bright sight of this principle.

  • In the case of Varghese v. Kerala State Electricity Board[5]

Explaining the concept of strict liability, the court added “Whose fault was it that this accident occurred?” should be replaced with “Whose risk was it that this accident might occur?”

In this case Kerala Electricity Board was made liable for damages based on the principle of strict liability.

  •  Evolution of Absolute Liability-(The perfect Parameter)

Strict liability however is established after considering the exceptions as follows-

  1. Plaintiff’s own default,
  2. Consent of the Plaintiff
  3. Act of god
  4. Act of third party
  5. Statutory authority.
STRICT LIABILITY-EXCEPTION=ABSOLUTE LIABILITY

This clearly shows that India adopted the concept of absolute liability is just an evolution of Strict Liability when no exceptions are considered though followed with must stricter sense. In the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India the court took a bold decision as after the disastrous Bhopal Gas tragedy where more then 3000 died it was the second took lives of multi-hundred people. Then court took a bold decision by introducing Absolute Liability as an extension to strict liability. Following are the cases where significant use of principle is witnessed-

  1. Indian Council For Environment Legal vs Union Of India &Ors.Etc[6]

FACT- In this case writ petition was filed up by an environmental organization named Indian Council for Environment Legal Action. That environment organization brought up subject matter to bring light on the woes of people living in an area which is captured by the chemical industries plants in a village named Bichhri village. It is a small village located in Udaipur district of Rajasthan. Northern part of this village is captive with the chemical industrial plants like Hindustan Zinc Limited and many other. This case highlights the greed among the industrialists for the maximization of their profits by promoting industrialization and export earnings.

JUDGMENT- Consequently, the applicant industry is directed to pay Rs. 37,385,000 INR (USD 608,628) along with compound interest @ 12% per annum from April 11, 1997 till the amount is paid or recovered. The applicant industry is also directed to pay costs of litigation.[7]

  1. Klaus Mittelbachert vs. East India Hotels Ltd:[8]

FACT-The plaintiff, a German co-pilot suffered grave injuries after diving into the swimming pool of the five-star restaurant. Upon investigation, it was seen that the pool was defectively designed and had insufficient amount of water as well. The pilot’s injuries left him paralyzed leading to death after 13 years of the accident.

JUDGEMENT-The court held that five-star hotels that charge hefty amounts owe a high degree of care to its guests. This was violated by Hotel Oberoi Inter-continental, New Delhi when the defectively designed swimming pool left a man dead. This made the hotel absolutely liable for payment of damages. The hefty amounts taken from the guests by the hotel owners guaranteed them to pay exemplary damages to the deceased or in any such further cases. It was decided that the plaintiff would receive Rs. 50 lakhs for the accident caused.[9]

  • Conclusion-

The concept of strict liability has a pre-dominant significance today. From the above cited cases the relevance is clear. Also it’s promoting justice to the labour class and general public who suffer and compensate their lives for the error in sources of someone else’s profit. 

[1] Source- G. H. L. FRIDMAN, London, THE RISE AND FALL OF RYLANDS v. FLETCHER

[2] (1866), L.R. 1 Ex. 265 ; affirmed in the House of Lords sub nomine,

Rvlands v. Fletcher (1868), L.R. 3 H.L. 330.

[3]AVAILABLE AT< https://www.lawteacher.net/free-law-essays/contract-law/tortuous-doctrine-of-rylands-v-fletcher-relevance-contract-law-essay.php#ftn18>

[4] 1987 AIR 1086, 1987 SCR (1) 819

[5] A.I.R. 2013 Ker. 135 (F.B.)

[6] Writ Petition (C) No. 967 of 1989

[7] AVAILABLE AT< http://lawtimesjournal.in/indian-council-for-environment-legal-vs-union-of-india-ors-etc/>

[8] A.I.R 1997 Delhi 201 (single judge)

[9] AVAILABLE AT< http://www.legalservicesindia.com/article/2155/Strict-and-Absolute-Liability.html>

Also Read: https://lawlex.org/lex-pedia/visakhapatnam-gas-disasterstrict-or-absolute-liability/20070

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