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Rule of Strict Liability in Tort law

Rule of Strict Liability in Tort law
Rule of Strict Liability in Tort law


In certain scenarios, an individual may find themselves accountable for causing harm even in the absence of negligence, absence of intent to cause harm, or despite having taken proactive measures to prevent it. 

Essentially, the law acknowledges instances of 'No fault' liability. Notably, two legal precedents shed light on this matter: firstly, the landmark case of Rylands v. Fletcher (1868) decided by the House of Lords, and secondly, the pivotal ruling of the Supreme Court of India in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (1987).

The principle established in Rylands v. Fletcher is commonly referred to as the 'Rule in Rylands v. Fletcher' or 'Rule of Strict Liability.' However, due to the existence of various exceptions to its application, it might be more accurate to designate it as the principle of Strict Liability rather than Absolute Liability.

Conversely, when formulating the principle in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, the Supreme Court explicitly termed the recognized liability as Absolute Liability. The court emphasised that this liability would not be subject to the exceptions recognized under Rylands v. Fletcher.


In the case of Rylands v. Fletcher (1868), the House of Lords established the doctrine of 'Strict Liability', recognizing liability even in the absence of fault. This principle asserts that a defendant can be held accountable for harm caused, irrespective of negligence or intent, if they introduce and maintain something likely to cause harm on their property.

In this case, the defendant had a reservoir constructed on his land by independent contractors to supply water to his mill. Unbeknownst to him, the site contained old, neglected shafts which were not properly sealed off by the contractors. Upon filling the reservoir, water burst through these shafts, flooding the plaintiff’s nearby coal mines. Despite the defendant's lack of negligence, he was deemed liable.


Basis of the Liability

The foundation of this liability was articulated by Blackburn, J., stating that anyone who introduces and maintains something on their property that is likely to cause harm if it escapes is responsible for any resulting damage. This liability can only be excused if the escape is due to the plaintiff's negligence, acts of nature, or unforeseeable circumstances.

The justification behind this rule is straightforward. If something not naturally present on one's property poses a threat to others when it escapes, it is only fair that the person who brought it there should bear responsibility for any ensuing damage.

Conditions for Application

According to this rule, if a person introduces and maintains a hazardous substance on their land, they are liable for any harm caused by its escape, regardless of their level of care. This doctrine is termed 'Strict Liability' because it imposes responsibility without the need to prove fault.

However, the House of Lords added an important qualification to this rule, stating that the use of the land must be "non-natural", as was the case in Rylands v. Fletcher itself. Therefore, for the rule to apply, three conditions must be met: (1) the introduction of a dangerous substance on one's land, (2) the escape of said substance, and (3) the non-natural use of the land.

Dangerous Thing

According to the rule established in Rylands v. Fletcher, liability arises when a dangerous thing escapes from one's land—a thing capable of causing harm if it escapes. In the case of Rylands v. Fletcher, the collected substance was a large body of water.

This rule has been extended to cover various substances and items such as gas, electricity, vibrations, trees, sewage, flagpoles, explosives, noxious fumes, and rusty wire.


For the Rylands v. Fletcher rule to apply, it is crucial that the substance causing the damage escapes beyond the defendant's control and occupation. For instance, if branches from a poisonous tree extend onto a neighbour's land, leading to harm to their cattle, it constitutes an escape, and the defendant would be liable.

Conversely, if the plaintiff's animal trespasses onto the defendant's land and is harmed by the tree there, there's no escape, and thus, no liability.

An illustration of this is found in Read v. Lyons & Co., where an employee was injured by an explosion within the defendant's ammunition factory premises. Despite the explosion involving a dangerous item, since it didn't escape beyond the defendant's premises, the Rylands v. Fletcher rule wasn't applicable, and thus, the defendants were not held liable.


Non-natural Use of Land

In Rylands v. Fletcher, the substantial collection of water in the reservoir was deemed a non-natural use of land. This distinction is crucial as merely using land for ordinary domestic purposes does not invoke this rule. To qualify as non-natural, the use must entail increased danger to others beyond what is ordinary or proper for the general benefit of the community.

For instance, a fire in a house's fireplace is considered a natural use, but if it spreads to adjoining premises, it wouldn't invoke liability under Rylands v. Fletcher. Similarly, growing non-poisonous trees on one's land is not considered a non-natural use. However, if a poisonous tree is grown, and harm occurs as a result, the defendant would be liable.

Other examples of natural use of land include electric wiring in a building, gas supply pipes, and water installations. However, in cases such as T.C. Balakrishnan Menon v. T.R. Subramanian, the use of explosives in an open ground was deemed non-natural, as it required licences under the Indian Explosives Act, indicating a heightened risk to others.

Act done by an Independent Contractor

Ordinarily, an employer isn't held responsible for the wrongful acts committed by an independent contractor. However, it's important to note that this rule doesn't serve as a defence against liability, even if the damaging act was carried out by an independent contractor.

In the case of Rylands v. Fletcher, the defendants were found liable despite having delegated the task to independent contractors.

Similarly, in T.C. Balakrishnan Menon v. T.R. Subramanian, an incident involving an explosive coconut shell resulted in serious injuries. The defendants had hired an independent contractor for a fireworks exhibition.

The Kerala High Court deliberated on whether the defendants would be liable. It was held that the explosive, being an "extra hazardous" object, fell under the purview of the Rylands v. Fletcher rule. Consequently, individuals utilising such hazardous items are accountable, even for the negligence of their independent contractors.

It was aptly observed that the explosive in question posed a significant danger to others, making it a non-delegable duty for the defendants to ensure its safe use. Engaging an independent contractor did not absolve them of liability for any breaches of this duty.

Exceptions to the Rule

The rule in Rylands v. Fletcher, while establishing strict liability, recognizes several exceptions, as outlined below:

(i) Plaintiff’s Own Default

If damage occurs due to the plaintiff's own actions or intrusion onto the defendant's property, it constitutes a defence. For instance, in Ponting v. Noakes, where a plaintiff's horse trespassed onto the defendant's land and died after consuming leaves from a poisonous tree, the defendant was not held liable because the damage resulted from the horse's intrusion, and there was no escape of the harmful substance.

Similarly, when damage is caused not by the escape of substances but by the unusual sensitivity of the plaintiff's property, the plaintiff cannot recover damages. In Eastern and South African Telegraph Co. Ltd. v. Capetown Tramways Co., the plaintiff's sensitive apparatus was disturbed by electric current from the defendant's tramways. As the damage was due to the plaintiff's property's peculiar sensitivity, the defendant was not liable.

(ii) Act of God

An unforeseen event beyond human control, such as an act of God, serves as a defence. If the escape is caused by supernatural forces without human intervention, the defence of an act of God can be invoked.

In Nichols v. Marsland, heavy rainfall caused embankments constructed by the defendant to collapse, leading to damage. As the incident resulted from an act of God, the defendants were not held liable.

(iii) Consent of the Plaintiff

Where the plaintiff consents to the presence of a dangerous substance on the defendant's land for common benefit, liability under the Rylands v. Fletcher rule does not arise. This consent is implied when the source of danger benefits both parties.

For instance, in Carstairs v. Taylor, water stored for the common benefit of both the plaintiff and the defendant caused damage. As the water was stored for their mutual benefit, the defendant was not held liable.

(iv) Act of Third Party

If harm is caused by a third party's act over which the defendant has no control, the defendant is not liable. In Box v. Jubb, where overflow from the defendant's reservoir was caused by strangers blocking a drain, the defendant was not held liable.

However, if the defendant could foresee the third party's actions and prevent harm, failure to do so constitutes negligence, making the defendant liable. In Northwestern Utilities v. London Guarantee and Accident Co., the defendant failed to prevent damage caused by a foreseeable act of city authorities, leading to liability.

Position in India

The principle of strict liability, akin to its English counterpart, finds application in India with some deviations in both extension and limitation.

Motor Vehicle Accidents

In cases of motor vehicle accidents, India recognizes liability without fault to a certain extent. Initially, in Minu B. Mehta v. BalaKrishna (1977), the Supreme Court held that liability couldn't arise without negligence on the part of the owner or driver. 

However, the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988 introduced provisions for no-fault liability. Section 140 of the Act allows for compensation without establishing fault, providing fixed sums for death or permanent disability. This recognition of no-fault liability aligns with modern compensation needs and echoes the spirit of Rylands v. Fletcher, considering the hazardous nature of motor vehicle activities.

Railways Liability

Previously, Indian Railways' liability for goods and animals was that of a bailee under the Indian Contract Act. However, an amendment in 1961 changed this to that of an insurer, making them liable regardless of due care. Similarly, the Carriers Act of 1865 treats carriers as insurers for goods they transport by land.

Exceptions to Strict Liability

In certain scenarios, Indian courts have recognized exceptions to strict liability, notably in agricultural contexts. In Madras Railway Co. v. Zamindar, the Privy Council held that strict liability may not apply to the storage of water for agricultural purposes due to unique Indian conditions. If the owner takes due care, they may not be liable even if water escapes. 

Similarly, in K. Nagireddi v. Government of Andhra Pradesh, the High Court ruled that the government wasn't liable for water seepage from a canal, considering the vital role of water in agriculture and the absence of negligence.


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