Strict /Absolute liability

Strict/Absolute liability


Strict liability means liability without fault that is without intention or negligence. Generally a person is liable only for the wrong done by himself, but sometimes the law holds a person liable for the wrong done unintentionally and without negligence. This is based on the maxim Sic utere tuo ut a alienum non laedum which means every one must use his own things in such a way as not to do harm or damage to another.this form of liability is called strict liability. This rule of strict liability was formulated in the famous case Rylands vs.Fletcher.

Rule in Rylands vs. Flectcher:

If a person keeps any non-natural things in his hands, he keeps it at his peril. If it escapes and does any damage, even in the absence of negligence, he is liable for all the natural consequences and losses due to its escape. Precautions and care are not defence. This is known as absolute liability.

In the light of the case, flectcher was a lessee of the coalmine. Rylands constructed reservoir on the neighbouring land of the coalmine to supply water to his mill. There were old disused shafts under the reservoir, which communicated with the coalmine. The water flooded to coalmine and damage it. The court held that rylands was liable for the escape of water even in the absence of negligence. Non natural use of land will also come under absolute liability. Thus the owner is liable for the escape of anything dangerous like beasts, water, filth, stench, electricity, traction engine or even a motorcar with petrol in it. In all such cases, the liability of the occupier is absolute.

Relevant case laws:

Snow vs. White:

The defendant had put pipes in his house without connecting them to any drain. Hence, water flowed to the adjacent house of the plaintiff and caused damage. The defendant was held liable under the Rylands vs. Flectcher rule.

Ramnath vs. Kalanath:

The defendant constructed a dam in his land and damage is done to a neighbour’s property i.e the plaintiff property. Here the defendant was held liable. For the rule in Rylands vs. Fletcher to apply, it is essential that the thing causing damage must escape outside the area of the control of the defendant. If there is no escape,then there can be no liability under the rule.

Read vs.Lyons and co.,

The plaintiff an employee in the defendant’s ammunition factory while performing her duties inside factory, a shell being manufactured there exploded and she was injured. There was no evidence of negligence on the part of defendant. The court held that even though the exploded shell was a dangerous thing , the defendant were not liable because there was no escape of the thing outside the defendant’s premises. The rule in rylands vs fletcher does not apply in this case.

Exception to the rule:

Natural use of the land

Playing cricket in the cricket ground is natural use of the land and hence if anyone is injured due to the hit of the ball, he cannot recover damages.

Things naturally attached to the land

The rule in Rylands vs. Fletcher is applicable only to things, which a person keeps in his land. But if damage is caused by anything which is naturally attached to the land, then the owner is not liable.

Example:  Nobel vs. Harrisons

The plaintiff was injured by the fall of a branch from a good tree in the defendant’s land. The court held that the defendant was not liable as there was no escape outside the land.

Act of god / VIS MAJOR

If by the supernatural power like lightning , flood etc, something escaped and causes damage , then the defendant is not liable

Example:  Nicholas vs. Marsland

The defendant constructed a dam, and by a violent storm , water flooded out and injured the plaintiff’s property. It was held defendant not liable.

Wrongful act of stranger:

If a third party wonderfully or intentionally causes any damages to the plaintiff, then the defendant is not liable.

Example: Richards vs. Lothian

A third person deliberately blocked up the waste pipe of lavatory basin in the defendant’s premises. The plaintiff’s premises was flooded due to this. It was held that the defendant was not liable, because it was not the act of  defendant but the third party.

Plaintiff’s own fault:

If the escape is due to the plaintiff’s negligence or own fault, then defendant is not liable.

Example:  Ponting vs. Noaks

The plaintiff’s horse escaped and ate some poisonous tree in the defendant’s boundary and died. As the escape of the horse was is due to the plaintiff’s own fault and not due to defendant , he was not liable for compensation.

Common benefit

If the escape is due to the consent of the plaintiff and is for the common benefit of both the plaintiff and the defendant, then the defendant is not liable.

Example:  Carstairs vs. Taylor

The plaintiff and defendant stored water in the upper storey. The defendant lived in the upper storey. A rat made a hole in the water box and hence damage was caused to the plaintiff. On the above principle, as water stored for the benefit of both, the defendant was not liable.

Statutory authority

If the law has authorised the defendant to keep dangerous things, then the defendant is not liable for the loss due to the escape of things in the aabsence of negligence.

Example: Municipal water tank, animals in approved circus, zoo etc.,

Rule in MC Mehta vs. Union of India:

The supreme court of India, in the famous case of MC Mehta vs. Union of India, has laid down the following new stringent rule.

According to this rule, any enterprise or industry engaged in dangerous or harzardous activity is strictly and absolutely liable to compensate persons affected by any harm or accident caused by it. The enterprise cannot escape by showing that there was no negligence.

As per this supreme court verdict, there are difference between the rule in Rylands vs. Fletcher and MC Mehta vs. Union of India.

  1. The rule in Rylands vs. Fletcher needs non natural use of land by defendant and escape of something from his land, which causes damage. But the rule in mehta does not require these conditions. The defendant should be engaged in a dangerous activity.
  2. As the rule in Rylands vs. Fletcher requires escape of thing which causes harm outside the premises. If harm is caused within premises then there is no compensation. But there is no such difference between persons inside the premises and outside the premises as escape of thing causing harm from the premises is not a necessary condition in the MC Mehta rule.
  3. Though the rule in Rylands vs. Fletcher is only strict liability and is not absolute liability as there are many exceptions for the application of the rule. But the new rule in MC Mehta is not subject to any exception and it is therefore, absolute.
  4. Ordinary or compensatory damages will be awarded in case of Rylands vs. Fletcher . exemplary damages can be awarded in cases of MC Mehta’s case.

Keepers of dangerous animals:

Strict liability for damage done by animals was formulated in the famous case may vs. Burdett. According to this case, if a person keeps any animal with knowledge of its propensities that is dangerous character, he keeps it at his peril and if it does any mischief , he is absolutely liable for its consequences. This is known as scienter rule.

The liability of the keeper of the animal depends upon his knowledge of the dangerous character of the animals.

Classification of animals:

Animals are classified as follows, depending upon the dangerous character of the animals.

  1. Dangerous animals or Ferae Naturae
  2. Domestic animals or Mansutae Naturae

Dangerous Animals:

These include lion, bear ,wolf ,elephant ,monkey etc, . a person keeping any of these animals must keep it at his peril. If the animal escapes and injures anyone, the owner is liable to pay compensation to the injured party. Since the animals are dangerous by nature, the injured party need not prove the dangerous character of the animals.knowledge of their dangerous propensity is presumed.

May vs. Burdett:

A monkey kept by the defendant bite the plaintiff. The court held that the defendant was liable even without the proof of defendant was liable even without the proof of dependant’s negligence. In respect of the control of the monkey. The court observed that in the case of dangerous animals, the liability arises even without proof of negligence.

Domestic animals:

These include animals like cats, dogs, horses, camels, dogs, pigs, rabbits etc., these animals are considered harmless and their keeper will not be held liable for the damage done by them unless the injured party proves that the keeper is unaware of its dangerous character.

The following are the essentials to make the owner of the domestic animals liable for damage:

  • The animals must be domestic animals.
  • The dangerous character must be proved. This is known as scienter.
  • The owner must have knowledge of the dangerous character of the animals.
  • The proof of a single instance of the dangerous character of the animal is a sufficient notice to the owner

Relevant case laws:

Cox vs. Burbridge:

the defendant’s horse grazing in a field got into the road and kicked a child playing there, as the plaintiff could not prove scienter the defendant was not liable.

Farden vs. Harcourt Rivington:

The defendant left his dog inside the salon motor car. The dog used to be generally quiet. The plaintiff was walking near the car. The dog jumped over the plaintiff. The window glass panel was smashed and a piece injured the plaintiff’s eye.

The court held that the defendant was not liable because the plaintiff had not proved the scienter. Further , the defendant was not negligent because he left the dog safe inside the car.

Buckle vs. Holmes:

The plaintiff entered a teashop with a dog in hand. There was a car with kitten locked up in the storeroom and it escaped and bit the dog and the plaintiff. As generally cats are not dangerous, the defendant was not held liable.


  1. If the animal escape due to Act of god, no liability attaches to the owner.
  2. If the plaintiff is contributory negligent then the defendant is not liable.
  3. If the plaintiff undertakes the risk of keeping the animals, the defendant is not liable ( Volenti non fit injuria)
  4. If a third party lets the animal loose, then the owner cannot be held liable.


Author: K Sangeetha,
Government law college, chengalpattu

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