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Absolute Liability

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 -

  1. The thing kept must be dangerous - The thing kept on the land must be as such as is likely to cause mischief if it escapes. For example, storing gas or explosives or wild beasts are all likely to cause damage if they escape.
  2. The thing must escape - If the thing is within the boundary of the defendant’s land, he is not liable. The thing must escape out of his land for him to be liable. In Crowhurst vs Amersham Burial Board 1878, branches of a poisonous tree were hanging outside the land of the defendant. Plaintiff’s cattle ate them and died. Defendant was held liable because protrusion of branches out side his property were considered as escaping from his property. However, in Ponting vs Noakes 1994, when the plaintiff’s horse intruded over his boundary and ate poisonous leaves of the defendant’s tree, he was not held liable because there was no escape.
  3. The thing must be a non natural use of land - The use must not be an ordinary use of the land. There must be a special purpose because of which it brings additional danger to other. In Noble vs Harrison 1926, a branch of a tree growing on defendant’s land broke and fell on plaintiff’s vehicle. It was held that growing regular trees is not a non natural use of land and the branch fell because of an inherent problem and not because of any negligence of the defendant and so he was not liable.

As mentioned before the following are exceptions or defenses against this rule -

  1. Plaintiff’s own default - If the thing escapes due to plaintiff’s fault the defendant cannot be held liable. In Eastern and South African Telegraph Co. Ltd. v Capetown Tramway Co 1902. the plaintiff’s submarine cable transmissions were disturbed by escape of electric current from defendant’s tramway. It was held that since the current was not causing any problem to regular users and it was causing problem to the cables only because they were too sensitive and so the defendant cannot be held liable. One cannot increase his neighbor’s liabilities by putting his land to special uses.
  2. Act of God - In circumstances where no human has control over, no one can be held liable. In Nichols vs Marsland 1876, the defendant created artificial lakes to store rainwater. In that particular year, there were exceptionally heavy rains, which caused the embankments to break causing floods, which broke defendant’s bridges. It was held that since there was no negligence on the part of the defendant and the flood happened only because of rains so heavy that nobody could imagine, the defendant was not liable.
  3. Consent of the plaintiff - If the plaintiff has consented for the accumulation of the dangerous thing, he cannot hold the defendant liable. This is also the case when an activity is done for mutual benefit. For example, A lives on the ground floor and the defendant lives on the floor above A’s. Now, a water tank is built by the defendant to supply water for both of them. The defendant will not be held liable for leakage of water fro m the tank.
  4. Act of third party - When a third party, who is not an employee or a servant or a contractor of the defendant is responsible for causing the dangerous thing to escape, the defendant will not be held liable for the damage. In Box vs Jubb 1879, the overflow from the defendant’s reservoir was caused by the blocking of a drain by some strangers. The defendant was held not liable. However, if such act can be foreseen, this defence cannot be pleaded because the defendant must take precautions to prevent such an act. In M.P. Electricity Board vs Shail Kumar AIR 2002, a person was killed by a live electric wire lying on the road. SC applied the rule of strict liability and held that the defence of act of stranger is not applicable because snapping of wire can be anticipated and the Electricity Board should have cut off the current as soon as the wire snapped.
  5. Statutory Authority - When an act is approved by the legislature or is done on the direction of the legislature, it is a valid defence for an action of tort even when the rules of Ryland vs Fletcher apply. However, it is not application when there is negligence.

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.

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