Strict Liability and Absolute Liability

13 Dec 2022  Read 50305 Views

Every person has certain legal rights, and it is the duty of other persons to respect them. Fault-based liability means the defendant violates the plaintiff’s rights. In No-Fault liability, the defendant is held liable to pay compensation even though he was not at fault. No fault liability is categorised into two parts: 1. Strict liability and 2. Absolute Liability. In this article, we will discuss strict and absolute liability in detail.

Strict liability

The concept of strict liability evolved from the case of Rylands v. Fletcher (1868). What actually a strict liability means is that anyone who retains dangerous chemicals on their property is accountable for any errors made if those substances somehow escape and cause harm. If there was no negligence on the part of the person retaining it, this rule is valid, and the burden of proof is always on the defendant to show why he is not guilty.

Rylands v. Fletcher

Two men were living adjacent to each other, i.e., Rylands and Fletcher. Fletcher had a mill which required energy resources for which there was a need to construct a reservoir. He hired some independent contractors and engineers for the construction. Ryland owned certain mine shafts which the contractors didn’t observe. Because of this, the water reached mines and destroyed Ryland’s land, for which he suffered losses and sued for same.

Issue: Can the defendant be held responsible for another party's action that causes an entity to leave his property without his knowledge or consent?

The defendant asserted that it was the contractor’s fault rather than his own. He could not accept that he was responsible for the harm, even though he did not know what caused it.

Judgment: The House of Lords held that Fletcher would be liable to compensate Rylands for all the damage caused to him.

Following the precedent set by this case, even if a person did not act negligently when retaining a dangerous object on his property, he will be held prima facie liable for any harm caused by that object's escape. A person is liable not because of their fault or negligence but because they kept a dangerous object on their property, which then escaped and caused damage. The strict liability rule refers to the situation where liability arises even in the absence of fault on the defendant’s part.

Based on this principle, certain essentials have been created that help to decide whether liability is strict.

1. Someone must have brought something hazardous into their property.

2. There must be Non-natural use of land.

3. The hazardous item that was brought must escape and cause damage.

Exceptions of strict liability

1. Plaintiff’s own fault- Ponting vs Noakes would be a perfect example. In this instance, the plaintiff's horse entered the defendant's property, ate some wild tree leaves, and passed away. The damage would not have been caused if the plaintiff's horse had not trespassed on the defendant's property. Hence, the defendant was not held accountable. As there was no way out, the strict responsibility rule would not be applicable.

2. Act of God- Whatever natural occurrence that is unpredictable, uncontrollable, or unavoidable is not to be held responsible for any damage it does. In Nicholas v. Marsland, 1876, the plaintiff's four bridges were destroyed when the defendant's artificial lake flooded due to heavy rains. To obtain the damages, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit. It was decided that the defendant was not responsible since an act of God caused the accident.

3. Volenti non-fit injuria/ mutual benefit- If two people introduce something artificial for their mutual advantage and it causes damage, neither of them may sue the other for compensation.

4. Act of stranger- The defendant will not be held accountable by this rule if any harm was brought by a third party over whom the defendant had no influence.

5. Statutory authority- A defence to a tort claim is an act performed under the authority of a statute.

Absolute liability

In the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, the doctrine of absolute liability was developed. This case was a significant turning point in Indian legal history by establishing a new rule. The rule stated that an enterprise is strictly liable to compensate all those harmed by an accident when the enterprise is engaged in a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity and harm results to anyone as a result of an accident in the operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity.

M.C. Mehta v. UOI- A company owned by Union Carbide was established in Bhopal. The factory produced pesticides and similar goods. 40 tonnes of hazardous gas were released by the plant overnight on December 2nd, 1984. (methyl isocyanate). The surrounding region of the facility turned into a gas chamber, resulting in 3000 fatalities and numerous injuries. All of the plant's safety systems were determined to be broken throughout the examination. The Supreme Court decided against adhering to the strict liability rule because doing so would let these industries off the hook for the harm they inflicted and the lives they lost.

The rule stated clearly that when an enterprise engages in a risky or inherently dangerous activity and harm is caused to anyone as a result of an accident while carrying out such a risky or inherently dangerous activity, the enterprise is strictly and absolutely liable to compensate all parties affected by accident and such liability is not subject to any of the exceptions that apply to the tortious principle of strict liability.


Essentials of absolute liability

1. Hazardous Substance - The accountability for a substance escaping from someone's land will only become apparent if the substance is hazardous or dangerous under the existing criteria. The substance must be hazardous because it is damaging, hurtful, and potentially destructive.

2. Escape - It must be proven that something that caused hurt or damage escaped the defendant's property or property under their control to hold them accountable. In other words, the dangerous material must escape to endanger a victim and establish absolute culpability. However, escape inside the building might also be considered complete culpability.

3. Non-natural use of land - The facts of the case make it obvious. Water storage for residential use can be natural, while large-scale water storage in reservoirs can be unnatural. Growing trees or plants on land might be natural; cultivating toxic plants can be unnatural.

4. Mischief - To hold the offender accountable, the plaintiff must demonstrate that any hazardous chemical has escaped and resulted in damages.

Difference between Strict liability and Absolute Liability

Basis of Difference

Absolute Liability

Strict Liability

Level of Damage

Mass Damage

Limited damage


No Defence

Many Defences (Volenti fit injuria. Act of god, plaintiff’s own default)


No exception

Act of the third party, an act of god etc..

Degree of Damage

It depends on the capability of the company.

Compensation is paid according to the nature and quantum of damage

Element of Escape

Not necessary



Absolute and strict liability are two related but distinct concepts within the same body of law, the Law of Torts. Strict Liability is narrower than an absolute liability. Both systems of law are founded on no-fault liability. Still, strict liability has several exceptions, and if a case falls under one of those exceptions, the defendant is not held accountable for the act. Absolute liability is a situation in which the defendant must pay damages and is not permitted to raise defences. Because of India’s industrialised economy and style, this liability is more well-known there. Even though it is in England, it needs to be adequately described there.

About the Author: Gurpreet Kaur Dutta | 82 Post(s)

A legal content writer who pursued BBA-LL.B.(H) from Amity University Chhattisgarh. She has a keen interest in corporate and IPR sectors. 

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