Strict liability and Absolute liability in law of Torts

Palak Jain, a 1st-year law student at Law College Rajasthan University has written this article explaining the meaning and nature of Tort Law

This Article Explains about the two Important Principles of law of tort- Strict liability and Absolute liability


Law of torts seeks to achieve what is called distributive justice, where the person responsible for the injury caused to the plaintiff has to bear the burden. The simple Principles are:

  • If the defendant is responsible, i.e., is at fault, he has to compensate the plaintiff, and thus bear the burden.
  • If the plaintiff is responsible he should bear the burden.
  • If both are at fault, they should share the burden.
  • If neither of them is at fault, the plaintiff has to bear the loss.

However, Law of torts does not hold the defendant liable for any loss that may be caused to the plaintiff on account of defendant’s act. The loss must be caused due to breach of some legal duty on the part of the defendant towards the plaintiff (damnum sine injuria and injuria sine damnum).

During the development of law of torts, distinction between two general classes of duties came to be recognised:

  1. Duties not to injure intentionally, recklessly or negligently. – Fault Liabilty
  2. Duties not to injure simpliciter. – No Fault Liability.

When a person is engaged in a duty of normal risk, he has the duty not to injure intentionally, etc. But, when he is engaged in an activity which is regarded by law as inherently and extremely dangerous, such as handling explosives, there is a duty not to injure simpliciter.


Justice Blackburn’s judgement in Rylands v. Fletcher is acknowledged to be the first case in which strict liability was applied.

Rylands v. Fletcher: In 1860, John Rylands contemplated a new reservoir to be constructed for supplying water to the Ainsworth mill. He appointed a competent contractor to execute the plan. Thomas Fletcher had a mine in the  neighborhood. There were some old disused shafts which lead from defendant’s land to the  plaintiff’s mines. Though the contractor was aware of this, he did not take care in filling them. As a result when the reservoir was filled, these shafts succumbed to the pressure and water entered the plaintiff’s mines and damaged them It was accepted that the defendant was not negligent, though the contractor was. But still the  defendant was held liable.

Principle: The person who brings on to his land and collects and keeps there something likely  to do mischief if  it  escapes must keep it in at his peril and if he  does not do so, he is liable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape. But the use of land must be non-natural.


In Blackburn J.’s formulation, the rule applies to bringing onto the defendant’s land things likely to do mischief if they escape, which have been described as ‘dangerous things’.

In Hale v. Jennings Brothers, Scott, LJ, referred to the rule as “a broad principle that the liability attaches because of the occupier of the land bringing onto the land something which is likely to do damage if it escapes”.

In Read v. Lyons, Lord Macmillan stated that “the doctrine of Rylands v. Fletcher derives from a conception of mutual duties of adjoining landowners and its congeners are trespass and nuisance”.

In the same case, Viscount Simon aptly put the essential conditions to make  one  liable under doctrine of strict liability as follows:

Now the strict liability recognised by this House in Rylands v. Fletcher is conditioned by two elements which I may call

  1. the  condition  of ‘escape’ from  the land  of something  likely to do mischief if it escapes, and
  2. the condition of ‘non-natural use of land’.

We may observe that the following are the three requirements for application of rule in Rylands v. Fletcher,

  1. Something dangerous must be brought, collected and kept on the land.
  2. It must be non-natural use of land.
  3. The thing must escape.

So the three essentials of strict liability are:


A thing which is of such nature that it has the tendency to escape and  when escapes  to cause considerable damage.

e.g.,gases, liquids, animals.


Use of the land must be other than its ordinary use, i.e., the purpose for which it is meant or the purpose for which it is suitable.

Illustrations of natural use of land can be: storage of water in reservoir  for  mill or  use, storage of one or two gas cylinder for domestic  use,electricity connection  to  light the house, lighting an oil lamp in house etc.

In Sochacki v. Sas, B, who was a lodger in A’s house, lit a fire in his room and went out. While he was out, his room caught fire may be due to jumping of a spark. It spread and damaged A’s property in the rest of the house. There was no evidence of negligence on the part of B. It was held that B was not liable under Rylands v. Fletcher since his use of the fire in his grate was an ordinary, natural, proper,

everyday use of a fire place in a room.

In T. C. Balkrishna Menon v. T.R. Subramanian, the Court held that the use of explosives in an open field on the occasion of festival is a ‘non-natural’ user of land.

In State of Punjab v. Modern Cultivators, due to overflow of water from a canal damage was done to plaintiff’s property. The Supreme Court held that use of land for construction of a canal system is a normal use and thus not non natural use of land.

In Mukesh Textile Mills v.  Subramanya Sastry,  A was owner of a sugar factory.  B owned land adjacent to A’s sugar factory. A stored quantity of molasses and it escaped to B’s land and damaged his crop. B sued A. Collecting molasses in large quantities was held by the Court to be non natural use of land and if a person collected such things on his land and escaped to neighbours land, he was liable.


Defendant would be liable only when there is escape of  the  object  fromland  of which he is in occupation or control.

Read v. J. Lyons & Co. Ltd., Appellant was employed as an Inspector of Ammunition. He was injured by the explosion of a shell while she was on respondent’s premises in the performance of her duties. Further there was no proof of negligence on the part of the defendant. The Court held that the injury was caused on the premises of the defendants i.e. not outside, thus no escape thereby, the respondents were not liable.


In the following circumstances, the rule of strict liability is not applicable.

  1. Act of God (Vis Majeur)
  2. Act of third party
  3. Plaintiff’s consent
  4. Common benefit of plaintiff and defendant
  5. Plaintiff’s own default
  6. Statutory Authority
  • Act of God (Vis Majeur): The damage took place due to some happening which was due to the force of nature and was unforeseen, beyond the control of the defendant and extraordinary.

Nichols v. Marshland, The defendant had some ornamental lakes formed up by damming up a natural stream. Due to unnatural rainfall “greater and more violent than any within the memory of a witness” broke down the artificial embankments and carried away four bridges belonging to the plaintiff. It was held that the defendant is not liable.

Ryan v. Young, Driver of a lorry of the defendant died while driving the lorry which thereon ran on and injured the plaintiff. The driver before dying appeared to be in good health. Further defendant was not under duty to get the driver medically examined. There was no fault in the lorry. The defendant was held not liable.

State of Mysore v. Ramchandra, Constructing a water storage to increase the supply of water is natural use of land and a permitted act, subject to application of emergency measure. One such measure is to make arrangement for outlet of water in case of emergency. It was not done in the present case which resulted into the damage to the property of one and great loss thereby. The defence of Act of God was not allowed.

  • Act of Third Party: Where escape is caused by the act of the third party over whom the defendant has no control, he will not be liable.

Box v. Jubb, The defendants were the owners of  a  reservoir,  which was supplied  with water from a main drain, not their property, which flowed by it. There were  sluice gates properly constructed between the reservoir and main drain at both  the inlet and out let. Owing to an obstruction in the main drain at a point below the defendants’ reservoir, caused by a third party over whom the defendants had no control, and without their knowledge, the water in the drain forced open the sluice gates and caused the reservoir to overflow on to the plaintiff’s land. Held, that the defendants were not liable for the damage caused by the overflow.

Rickards v. Lothian, The plaintiff was tenant  of  the defendant  on the second floor. On the fourth floor of defendant’s building a third party maliciously plugged up the waste pipes and opened the water taps. As a result, the plaintiff’s goods  were  damaged by the flow of water from the lavatory on the fourth floor. The defendant  was held not liable as it was an act of third party beyond his control and no proof of negligence on his part.

  • Plaintiff’s Consent: Where the plaintiff has given consent to the defendant in respect of the thing stored, there is no liability. This is similar to volenti non fit injuria.

In Balakh Glass Emporium v. United India Insurance Company Ltd., the  defendant was held not liable when water escaped from upper floor and damaged the lower floor because there was an implied consent by the occupier of lower floor to the normal use of water by the occupier of the upper floor.

  • Common benefit of plaintiff and defendant: Where the artificial work is maintained with the plaintiff’s consent and for the common benefit of the defendant, this rule does not apply.

In Carstairs v. Taylor, Taylor, the landlord, rented his upper story to the plaintiff. Taylor, for the benefit of both maintained a rain water box for the benefit of both. Some rats gnawed the water box which resulted into escape of water and damaging the goods of the plaintiff. The defendant was held not liable as there was plaintiff’s consent and no negligence on the part of the defendant.

  • Plaintiff’s own fault: If the injury caused to the plaintiff is due to his own fault, the defendant is not liable.

Pointing v. Noakes, Plaintiff’s horse reached over defendant’s boundary and nibbled some poisonous tree and died. It was held that the death of the horse was caused by the plaintiff’s own negligence and that the defendant was not liable.

  • Statutory Authority: Where the defendant is authorised or required under the law to accumulate, keep or collect the dangerous things which escape or cause mischief and injures the plaintiff, the rule of strict liability does not apply.

Green v. Chelsea Waterworks, The defendants were authorised by statute to store water for the purposes of supply to the city. Owing to some accidental cause the water escaped and caused injury to the plaintiff. The Court held that where the accumulation of water by the defendant was not for their own purpose, and where they had been authorised by statute to accumulate and keep it, they would not be responsible for any escape, unless it is result of the negligent act of the defendants.


Rule of strict liability has been applied by the Indian Courts. But it is rarely applied.  In India, storing of water for agricultural use or irrigation purpose is  not held to be non natural use of land.

In the oleum leak disaster case of 1985 liability was made further stringent by the introduction of the rule of absolute liability.

M. C. Mehta v. Union of India (Oleum Gas Leakage Case or Sriram Industries Case), Oleum gas leaked from one of the units of Shriram Foods and Fertilizers Industries in New Delhi. It resulted into death of one of the advocate and caused serious injuries to several others. A writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution was brought by way of public interest litigation.

The Supreme Court of India felt that the application of the rule of strict liability is inadequate to deal such serious problems, holding that-

“Law has to grow in order to satisfy the needs of the fast changing society and keep abreast with the economic developments, taking place in this country Law cannot allow our judicial thinking to be constrained by reference of the law as it prevails in England or for the matter of that in any other foreign legal order.”

The Court also observed:

“This rule evolved in the 19th Century at a time when all these developments of science and technology had not taken place cannot afford any guidance in evolving any standard of liability consistent with the constitutional norm and the needs of the present day economy and social structure.”

It further held that, “Application of exceptions to this rule is inapplicable.”

Bhagwati, C.J. assertively announced the entry of the rule of absolute liability and  held the Defendant liable in the following words,

“An enterprise, which is engaged in hazardous or inherently dangerous  industry  which poses a potential threat to the health and safety of the persons working  in   the factory and residing in the surrounding areas owes an absolute  and  non-  delegable duty to the community to ensure that no harm results to anyone on account of hazardous or inherently dangerous activity which it has undertaken.”

Union Carbide Corporation v. Union of India, In this case, the rule of absolute liability applied in the oleum gas leak disaster case was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court. In December, 1984 methyl iso-cyanate and other toxic gases leaked from the Union Carbide Corporation India Ltd. at Bhopal. About 2660 people died, several thousand suffered serious injuries which did not die with that generation but also in cases got transferred to their next generation. The Court on applying the principle of absolute liability held the defendant liable to pay US $470 Million dollars by way of compensation to the victims or relatives of the victims.

Arun Kumar v. Union of India, In this case, a tigress chewed the hand of a three year old child. While holding the Zoo authorities liable the Court held that the zoo authorities being under absolute responsibility did not perform their part of duty and thus should be answerable to pay compensation.


(Innovation of the Supreme Court of India)

Decision of the Supreme Court of India in M. C. Mehta v. Union  of  India  (Oleum Gas Leakage Case) is innovative in the sense that it gave rise to a new kind of liability called ‘absolute liability’. Absolute liability is strict liability without exceptions.SC held that the rule in Ryland’s case decided in the nineteenth century is inadequate to meet the needs of the modern scientific world with hazardous and dangerous activities being common.

In Charan Lal Sahu v. UOI, It was held that this duty was ‘absolute non-delegable’ and the defendant cannot escape liability by showing that he had taken reasonable care and that there was no negligence on his part.


Apart from the difference, in case of strict liability certain defences are admitted whereas in case of absolute liability no defence is admitted, the following are the  other differences:

  1. In case of strict liability, what is brought on land is dangerous, but not inherently dangerous but, in case of absolute liability it is inherently dangerous, and hence no exceptions admitted.
  2. Strict liability is based on non-natural use of land, absolute liability does not envisage such a user.
  3. In case of strict liability, the thing must escape Hence, there is no liability in respect of persons on the premises however Absolute liability is available also to the persons on the premises.
  4. In case of strict liability ordinary damages are awarded. In M. C. Mehta it was observed that in such cases exemplary damages may be awarded and  that  the more prosperous or affluent the enterprise, the more  damages  should  be  awarded.

This observation was treated as obiter dictum in Charan Lal Sahu case, while was treated as ratio decidendi in Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action v. UOI.

Also Read: Understanding Injuria Sine Damnum and Damnum Sine


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