In certain situations, a person is held liable for the damages caused by his actions even when the actions are done without any ill intention or negligence on account of equity and justice. For example, if a person keeps a lion for a pet and despite of all the precautions the lion escapes the cage and kills someone. In this case, the owner of the lion will be liable even though he had no ill intention to cause death and had taken all the precautions to keep the lion in the cage. This seems just because the damage happened only because he brought a dangerous thing on his property. He was also aware of the consequences if the lion escapes the cage and so he should be made liable if it escapes and causes damage.
This principle of holding a person liable for his actions without any kind of wrong doing on his part is called the principle of absolute liability or no fault liability. This principle was first upheld in the case of Ryland vs Fletcher by the privy council in 1868. However, later on some exceptions to this were also established due to which “strict liability” is considered a more appropriate name for this principle. In this case, the defendant hired contractors to build a reservoir over his land for providing water to his mill. While digging, the contractors failed to observe some old disused shafts under the site of the reservoir that lead to plaintiff’s mine on the adjoining land. When water was filled in the reservoir, the water flooded the mine through the shafts. The plaintiff sued the defendant. The defendant pleaded that there was no intention and since he did not know about the shafts, he was not negligent even though the contractors were. Even so, he was held liable. J Blackburn observed that when a person, for his own purposes, brings to his property anything that is likely to cause a mischief if it escapes, must keep it at his peril and if it escapes and causes damage, he must be held liable. He can take the defence that the thing escaped due to an act of the plaintiff or due to vis major (act of God) but since nothing of that sort happened here, then it is unnecessary to inquire what excuse would be sufficient. To this rule promulgated by J Blackburn, another requirement was added by the Court of Exchequer Chamber, that the use must be a non-natural use of land as was the case in Ryland vs Fletcher itself. For example, growing of regular trees is a natural use but growing poisonous trees is not. Keeping dogs as pet is a natural use but keeping wild beasts is not. Thus, the conditions when this rule will apply are -
As mentioned before the following are exceptions or defenses against this rule -
Position in India The principle of strict liability is applicable in India as well. For example, Motor Vehicles Act 1938, recognizes no fault liability. Similarly, the liability of a public carrier such as railways has also been increased from that of a bailee to an insurer. However, there has been a deviation in the scope of this rule. Depending on the situation, its scope has been increased as well as decreased by the courts. For example, in Madras Railway Co. vs Zamindar 1974, the water collected in a pond for agricultural purposes escaped and caused damage to the railway track and bridges. Here, the application of this rule was restricted because the collection of water in such a way is a necessity in Indian conditions and so it is a natural use of the land. This mechanism to store rainwater is used throughout the country and since ages. Therefore, the defendant was not held liable.
A landmark case in this respect was the case of M C Mehta vs Union of India AIR 1987. In this case, oleum gas from a fertilizer plant of Shriram Foods and Fertilizers leaked and caused damage to several people and even killed one advocate. In this case, the rule of Ryland vs Fletcher was applied. However, the company pleaded sabotage as a defence. SC went one step further and promulgated the rule of Absolute Liability. It observed that the rule of Ryland vs Fletcher was a century old and was not sufficient to decide cases as science has advanced a lot in these year. If British laws haven’t progressed, Indian courts are not bound to follow their law and can evolve the laws as per the requirements of the society. It held that an enterprise that engages in dangerous substances has an absolute responsibility to ensure the safety of the common public. It is only the company that can know the consequences of its activities and so it must take all the steps to prevent any accident. If, even after all precautions, accident happens, the company still should be made absolutely liable for the damages. The reason being that the company has a social obligation to compensate the people who suffered from its activity. SC also laid down that the measure of compensation should depend on the magnitude and capacity of the enterprise so that it can have a deterrent effect.