This article is written by Pragya Agrahari of Amity Law School, Lucknow. This article provides a detailed analysis of the strict liability under US Tort Law, including its various forms, examples, defences provided to the defendant, and important case laws.
it has been published by Rachit Garg.
Tort law basically deals with various wrongful acts done by any person that violate some legal rights vested in another person. Its purpose is to provide relief to the injured party, to impose liability on the responsible party, and to deter others from doing that harmful act. Typically, the plaintiff was provided with damages or monetary compensation in the form of relief. Common law is the main source used by judges for the interpretation of its nature and scope.
In American jurisprudence, torts have been categorized into three groups:
- Intentional torts: Wrongs that have been done with the intention or the knowledge of a certain outcome.
- Negligent torts: Wrongs caused due to lack of reasonable care, which a defendant was obliged to take.
- Strict liability torts: Wrongs that do not depend on the intention of the defendant or the degree of care the defendant used; they only focus on the result caused due to a certain act or omission.
Strict liability torts
Generally, some degree of fault at the hands of the defendant is necessary to hold him/her liable for any wrong. If not, then some level of breach of duty must exist, for example, in negligence cases. But strict liability torts make an exception to this general rule. Strict liability torts are those for which a person may be held strictly liable for some action or omission, regardless of their mental state or intention while committing the wrong. It means “liability without any fault.” Here, the liability is based on the level of harm the defendant caused by his/her actions/omissions, even though there is no defendant’s fault at all.
In American tort law, there are three main categories of wrongs for which one can be strictly held liable.
- Where the defendant was in possession of dangerous animals, and it escaped and caused damage,
- Where the defendant was engaged in abnormally dangerous activities that caused damage,
- Defendant’s liability for damage caused by their products.
Possession of certain animals
Possession of wild and dangerous animals like tigers, lions, snakes, and exotic species of animals can be dangerous enough to cause significant damage to life and property. These animals are wild, vicious, and unpredictable in nature. The owner of these animals keeps them at their own risk and, hence, bears an implicit liability for any harm caused by such animals later on. Even if the keeper does not have any knowledge of the propensity of the harm caused or has taken utmost care in the prevention of such harm, they would be held strictly liable.
Usually, strict liability rules are restricted to the possession of wild and dangerous animals. But they can extend to domestic animals or animals who were not known to be ordinarily dangerous in the case if the owner knew that such animal has vicious or dangerous propensities.
According to the “one-free-bite rule,” an animal’s first bite is not liable under strict liability; it will come under ordinary negligence rules. But an animal’s later attacks will come under strict liability. For example, if a domestic dog has previously attacked people and again attacks several people, the owner of such a dog will be held responsible under strict liability.
In the case of Brown v. City of Alexandria (1969), the son of Mr. Brown, Michael, was bitten by a chimpanzee kept in the Alexandria City Zoo. Before this incident, this chimpanzee also bit off the thumb of one employee while feeding the animal. The trial court held the city liable and negligent and granted damages to the plaintiff because the city had reason to know that the animal was dangerous.
Abnormally dangerous activity
The rule of strict liability usually applies to cases where the defendant was engaged in “abnormally dangerous” or “ultra-hazardous activities.” This involves those activities that have a foreseeable risk of injury or damage to life or property, even if the parties involved have taken reasonable care and caution.
Any activity is said to be abnormally dangerous if the following conditions are satisfied:
- If it involves serious risk to any person or property, even if utmost care and caution were exercised,
- If it is not a matter of common usage.
Although every state has its own criteria for defining “abnormally dangerous,” there are some activities that are universally considered so. For example, the blasting of dynamite tends to be universally labeled as abnormally dangerous, as it involves a substantial risk of harm to a person or property regardless of the degree of care exercised.
The activity need not be rare, but it should not be carried out by the majority of people on a regular basis. For example, driving a car is not a job carried out by only a few people and, therefore, cannot be considered an abnormally dangerous activity. But activities involving the use of harmful chemicals, dangerous weapons, explosives, and other activities like burning fields, digging canals, storing dangerous substances, etc., can be considered ultra-hazardous activities. Moreover, the damage caused to the people are not limited to physical injury; they also include emotional damage and damage caused to business profits.
In the case of Halpert v. Ingram & Greene, Inc. (1972), Dr. Halpert, a dentist, filed suit for damage caused by six-month blasting near his dental clinic for preparing a site for construction. The frequent blasts sometimes shake the building in which the plaintiff carries out his profession. One day, a rock from an explosion propelled and shattered the plaintiff’s window. These types of minor incidents caused him various business losses. It also caused him emotional damage as he became increasingly nervous, anxious, and tense in anticipation of the blasts. The court said, “Since blasting involves a substantial risk of harm no matter the degree of care exercised, we perceive no reason for ever permitting a person who engages in such an activity to impose this risk upon nearby persons or property without assuming responsibility therefor.” Therefore, the Court agreed to grant him damages in the form of compensation.
The “product liability” rule is applied to the manufacturers or sellers of the products, who are assumed to be strictly liable for any damage caused by their products. This liability arises when damage is caused to any person by a defective product. Anyone who is hurt by such a defective product can recover compensation from the manufacturer or seller of the product. Even so, there is no need to show negligence on the part of the seller or manufacturer. The proof that the product was defective and that it had caused harm was sufficient to make a case under the strict liability doctrine.
Important elements for upholding product liability:
- Selling of product by the defendant and use of that product by the plaintiff,
- The defendant is the commercial seller of that product,
- An injury caused to the plaintiff,
- The product was defective at the time of the sale,
- The injury was the result of the product’s defect (whether actual or proximate).
There are two main categories of product liability:
A “manufacturing defect” refers to a mistake made in the process of making or manufacturing a certain product. In this case, the manufacturer can be held liable even if there is no fault or negligence on his/her part. Leaving screws in the soda can, giving rancid food that causes food poisoning, or having a defect in the car brakes are some classic examples of manufacturing defects.
In the case of Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc. (1963), the plaintiff brought an action against the retailer and the manufacturer of a Shopsmith, a power tool that caused him an injury on his forehead due to its defective design. The Court held the manufacturer strictly liable because it was proved that the power tool had a hidden defect that caused injury to the donee. The Court further stated that it was sufficient that the plaintiff was injured as a result of the product’s defect while using it in an intended manner.
Breach of warranty
A breach of warranty arises when the manufacturer or seller implicitly or explicitly guarantees something about the product and fails to act in that manner. In that case, the manufacturer or seller can be held strictly liable for sustained injuries.
In the case of Denny v. Ford Motor Co. (1995), the plaintiff sustained injuries when she was driving a car, the Ford Branco II, and a rollover accident took place when she applied the brakes to avoid a deer. Denny and her spouse filed suit against the manufacturer of the vehicle, claiming strict product liability and breach of the implied warranty of merchantability. The Court concluded in the case that, though the claim for strict liability was not viable, the manufacturer was liable for its breach of warranty that the vehicle was “merchantable” and “fit” for ordinary purposes.
Test to determine product strict liability
In the case of Tincher v. Omega Flex (2013), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania stated that the plaintiff must prove that the product is in ‘defective condition’ by showing that-
- The danger is unacceptable and unknown in the eyes of ordinary customers, or
- In the eyes of a reasonable person, the danger or seriousness of the harm caused by the defect outweighs the cost of taking precautions.
Consumer Expectation Test
This test asks the question of whether a consumer would generally anticipate such a defect in the product and its potential to cause injury. Under this test, the product is considered defective if a reasonable person contemplates such a defect. This test is usually used in cases of non-complex products and was originally applied to manufacturing defects, but now it also applies to design-defect issues as well. For example, a reasonable consumer might expect that the car will not explode on its own. If a car was made with an open and exposed gas tank, a reasonable person would determine that it is a defect.
In the case of Calles v. Scripto-Tokai Corp. (2007), the consumer expectations test was used to determine whether the “Aim N Flame” lighter was unreasonably dangerous. In this case, a 3-year-old child used the lighter when her mother was away and fired the premises, which resulted in injury to her twin sister, Jillian, who later died in hospital. The Court applied the test in this case and concluded that the “Aim N Flame” lighter was not an unreasonably dangerous product as it performed in the way an ordinary consumer would expect- produce a flame when used in a reasonably foreseeable manner by a child.
This test usually assesses the product’s risk in comparison to its utility. It is generally a cost-benefit analysis. Under this test, a product is considered defective if a reasonable consumer founds that the probability of the product causing harm is higher than the costs of taking precautions. This test implies that the manufacturer will be liable if the seriousness of the injury is greater than the cost of changing the design to a safer one. This test is generally used in cases of design defects.
In the case of Scoby v. Vulcan-Hart Corp. (1991), Scoby, a restaurant employee, slipped in the kitchen and got injured when his arm was submerged in a deep-fat fryer containing hot oil. He claimed that there was a design defect in the fryer and that it should have had a cover to prevent his injury. The Court affirmed that in such cases where the product’s mechanics were “simple” but obviously dangerous, the risk-utility test should not be employed. Hence, it was concluded that the product was not defective.
Defenses to a strict liability rule
In strict liability cases, the defendant is held liable for harm caused even if there is no fault or negligence on their part. But there are still defenses left that the defendant can use to save him/her from liability. These defenses depend on the facts of each case.
- In the dog bite case, the defendant can prove that the plaintiff itself trespassed and provoked the dog.
- In an abnormally dangerous activities case, the defendant can prove that the plaintiff itself acted in a negligent manner.
- In a product liability case, the defendant can show that the plaintiff misused the product.
Generally, three defenses are available to the defendant:
Assumption of the risk
This defense requires the defendant to prove that the plaintiff knew and acknowledged the risk posed by a certain condition and still voluntarily assumed the risk. In such a case, the plaintiff cannot hold the defendant strictly liable for any harm. For example, if a plaintiff engaged in an ultra-hazardous activity, knowing the risk involved in it, he/she will be barred from obtaining any compensation for the damage caused as a result of it.
This defense focuses on the harm caused as a result of the plaintiff’s own fault. If a plaintiff contributes to the infliction of such harm or damage, the court reduces the damages in proportion to the harm caused by the plaintiff itself. The defendant only needs to prove the plaintiff’s negligence. For example, in ultra-hazardous activity cases where the accident was caused by the plaintiff’s negligence. It also applies where the plaintiff, while crossing the road in the wrong manner, is hit by an over-speeding car.
Misuse/abuse of the product
Strict liability applies in cases where the plaintiff has used the product in a reasonable manner or in an intended manner. It means the defendant may avoid liability if he/she proves that the plaintiff used the product in the wrong manner. For example, if the plaintiff used a flavoring substance in a huge quantity and not in the manner or quantity cautioned on the product’s label, and this caused food poisoning to the plaintiff, the defendant would not be held liable as the plaintiff abused the product by not using it in an intended manner. Moreover, if the plaintiff used detergent to clean his electronic equipment, which caused him damage, the defendant would not be liable as the plaintiff clearly misused the product.
Comparison with strict liability in English law
Rylands v. Fletcher (1868)
The doctrine of strict liability originated in the English case Rylands v. Fletcher (1868), in which the House of Lords recognized the “strict liability” rule, also known as “no-fault liability.” In this case, the defendant constructed a reservoir over his land to provide water to the mill. The shafts used in it were old, due to which when water was filled in the reservoir, the shafts burst, and water flooded the plaintiff’s mine on the adjoining land. Even though the defendant had no knowledge about the shafts and they occurred due to the negligence of independent contractors, the defendant was held liable. The court observed, “a person who for his own purposes brings on his lands and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it in at his peril.”
Under the English common law, there are three essential elements for the application of the rule of strict liability:
This rule necessitates that some dangerous thing must be brought to his own land by the defendant. It can be a dangerous animal, tree branches, harmful gases or chemicals, electricity, a large quantity of water, explosives, etc. It must be something which, when escaped, causes mischief to other persons.
There must be an escape of that dangerous thing from the control of the defendant. Therefore, if the poisonous tree branches escape to the neighbor’s land and the cattle on the neighbor’s land die as a result of it, the owner of that tree will be strictly held liable (Crowhurst v. Amersham Burial Board 1878). But in the case of Ponting v. Noakes (1994), where a horse intrudes on the boundary and dies by nibbling the leaves of a poisonous tree there, the owner of the tree cannot be held liable as there is no escape.
Non-natural use of land
It is essential to impose liability under strict liability that there must be non-natural use of land by the defendant. In the Rylands v. Fletcher case, the collection of water in the reservoir in a huge quantity is held to be a non-natural use of land. “Non-natural use of land” in this context means what an ordinary person is not likely to do on his/her land. For example, growing poisonous trees on their premises is a non-natural use of land.
In the Rylands v. Fletcher case, the court also laid down some exceptions where the rule of strict liability would not apply.
Plaintiff’s own fault
Damage incurred by the plaintiff’s own fault is considered a good defense in a strict liability case. Here, the defendant cannot be held liable because damage was sustained due to the plaintiff’s own fault. In the case of Ponting v. Noakes, the plaintiff’s horse itself intruded onto the defendant’s land and died as a result of eating poisonous leaves; therefore, the defendant cannot be held liable.
Act of God
An Act of God or any occurrence due to the course of nature is considered a defense against liability under the strict liability principle. In the case of Nichols v. Marsland (1876), where the defendant created an artificial lake on his land from the natural stream, and after extraordinarily heavy rainfall, the embankments ruptured, and the stream of water washed away the plaintiff’s four bridges. The plaintiff sued him for damages. The Court held that the defendant was not liable as the accident was caused due by an Act of God.
Consent of the plaintiff
The consent of the plaintiff is also a defense against the application of the rule of strict liability. It is based on the principle of “volenti non fit injuria” (to a willing person, it is no injury). According to this, a person who voluntarily or knowingly exposes themselves cannot bring charges against another person or recover damages. In the case of Carstairs v. Taylor (1871), water stored on the upper floor, possessed by the defendant, leaked and caused damage to the goods kept on the ground floor, occupied by the plaintiff. As the goods were kept for the benefit of both the defendant and plaintiff, the defendant was not held liable because consent is implied where the dangerous thing is for the “common benefit.”
Act of the third party
In cases where the damage has been caused due to a third party other than the plaintiff and the defendant, the defendant cannot be held liable for the damage caused. Such a person should neither be an agent of the defendant nor have the defendant any control over them. In the case of Box v. Jobb (1879), where the defendant’s reservoir overflowed due to the blockage of the drain by strangers, the defendant was not held liable.
According to this exception, any act done by the statutory authority that caused damage would not come under the ambit of the rule of strict liability. It means statutory authorities cannot be held strictly liable for any damage caused due to any dangerous thing. In the case of Green v. Chelsea Waterworks Co. (1894), a water main belonging to the company, which had a statutory duty to maintain the continuous supply of water, burst without any negligence from the defendant’s side, and the plaintiff’s land was flooded as a result of it. It was held that the company was not liable as it was engaged in performing a statutory duty.
The American courts often cite the case of Rylands v. Fletcher as the origin of the rule of “abnormally dangerous activity,” but in American jurisprudence, it is not necessary for the defendant to carry out such activity on his/her own land. However, it is required that some activity involving “unnatural use” or “anything not of common usage” take place.
Strict liability vs. negligence
Tort law contrasts strict liability and negligence by identifying different standards for each of them. In both cases, whether a negligence or strict liability case, the plaintiff is entitled to recover damages in the form of compensation from the defendant. In both cases, the defendant attracts liability without committing any fault and without having any intention to cause harm. The only difference is that in a negligence case, the plaintiff has to prove the fault or breach of their duty to hold the defendant liable, whereas, in the case of strict liability, the harm caused itself is sufficient to hold the defendant liable.
In negligence cases, there are four essentials that need to be fulfilled:-
- The defendant must have a certain duty of care,
- There must be a breach of this duty by the defendant,
- Injury caused to the plaintiff,
- The injury was the result of the defendant’s breach of duty.
The defendant has a “duty of care” to that degree, which a prudent person is likely to exercise in similar situations. For example, drivers have a “duty of care” to run their vehicles at a moderate speed and obey traffic rules. Here, a breach of duty will occur when the driver violates traffic signals due to which injury was caused to the plaintiff. It generally includes cases like road accidents, medical malpractice, slip and fall cases, or wrongful death.
On the other hand, strict liability does not involve any “level of care” employed by the defendant to hold them liable for the harm caused. Even if the defendant exercised a reasonable amount of care while performing any activities, they would not be excluded in a strict liability case.
Strict liability theory rests upon the moral principle that “one who has caused the harm must pay for it.” It depends upon the severity of the harm caused to the plaintiff, regardless of the fault or negligence on the defendant’s part. In American jurisprudence, it falls into three categories, that is, wild animals, abnormally dangerous activities, and defective products. Each category has its own essentials to prove the case, and their defenses vary from case to case. The plaintiff, in order to prove the case, only has to show the connection between their injuries and the defendant’s dangerous activity or defective product. There is no need to prove the defendant’s fault.
Frequently asked questions
Is copyright infringement a strict liability tort?
Although there is a general belief that copyright infringement is a strict liability tort, the reality is the opposite. Liability for copyright infringement requires four elements to be fulfilled: conduct (act of copying), outcome (similarity), harm (harm to the market), and a fault (failing to comply with the standards). Hence, copyright infringement is a fault-based tort and not a strict liability tort.
Do dog bite cases come under the purview of strict liability torts?
Generally, in cases that involve the domestication of dangerous animals like snakes, tigers, crocodiles, wolves, etc., and harm caused to the plaintiff due to these animals, strict liability directly applies. But in cases involving animals like dogs, cats, etc., that are meant for domestication, strict liability only applies if the defendant has knowledge of the injury that such an animal can cause. For example, if the defendant’s dog has previously attacked a child and again attacks a lady, that lady can hold the defendant strictly liable as he has knowledge of the danger that his dog can cause.
How to prove strict liability torts?
Proving strict liability in torts can be easier than proving fault liability or negligence. But it doesn’t mean that there is no requirement of evidence for holding the defendant liable. The plaintiff in such cases must show:
- There is an injury to him/her,
- The defendant’s dangerous actions or the defective product has led to this injury.
Without demonstrating the defendant’s fault, the plaintiff can claim damages as long as the case falls under strict liability rules and his/her injury was proved to be a result of the defendant’s conduct or defective product.
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