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CASES OF STRICT LIABILITY
CASES OF STRICT LIABILITY
We shall now consider certain classes of cases in which the liabilities of the defendants are more strict than it ordinary cases. In those cases of strict liability, liability is imposed on the defendants irrespective of considerations of their mental state. Liability is not based on blameworthiness. Even innocent persons are held liable for harm caused to others on account of escape of things from their land. Certain Judges who formulated these principles called them as cases of absolute liability, but this is not accurate, for many of these rules have got various recognised exceptions and not absolute. Nevertheless they have undoubtedly laid down rules of much stricter liability. The important cases of strict liability can be classified thus:
1. The Rule in Rylands v. Fletcher.
2. Liability for Dangerous Operations.
3. Liability for Animals.
4. Liability for Dangerous Chattels.
5. Liability for Dangerous Structures and Premises.
Rule in Rylands v. Fletcher
The facts of this leading case were as follows: Rylands employed independent contractors who were apparently competent to construct a reservoir on his land. In the course of the work the contractors came upon old shafts and passages on Ryland's land. They communicated with the mines of Fletcher, a neighbour of Rylands; but no one suspected this for they appeared to be filled with earth. The contractors did not block them up and when the reservoir was filled, the water from it burst through the old shafts and flooded Fletcher's mines. It was found as a fact that while Rylands had not been negligent the contractors were negligent. Fletcher sued Rylands and the House of Lords ultimately held the defendant Rylands liable.
Blackburn, J. said: "We think that the true rule of law is that the person who, for his own purposes, brings on his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it in at his peril and if he does not do so is prima facia answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape."
This new rule had really made substantial progress on earlier English law in two branches:
1. In the matter of imposing liability on occupiers of land for the escape of things from their premises.
2. In the matter of the classes of persons for whose defaults in connection with such escape the occupier is vicariously responsible.
As to one, the court took a rule of liability which had been more or less clearly perceived in connection with the escape of fire, cattle or unity beasts, and extended it to the escape of mischievous things generally.
As to two, they laid down that the occupier from whose land these things escaped and did damage is liable not only for the default of his servant but also for that of an independent contractor and for that of anyone except a stranger.
A person will be held liable only if the injury has been caused to the plaintiff in consequence of the escape of the mischievous substance. Where there is no such escape, there is no liability. For instance, in a case where A, in the ordinary course of his duty, went to a factory where explosive articles were being manufactured and sustained bodily injuries on account of an explosion, the defendants were held not liable under Rylands case rule on the ground that there was no escape of the dangerous thing from the premises.
Extension of the rule
The rule in Rylands v. Fletcher has been applied to gas, electricity, oil, noxious fumes, colliery spoil, rusty wire from a decayed fence, vibrations, poisonous vegetation and a flagpole. A guest or an invitee upon adjoining property has a good cause for an action as was held in Shiffman v. Order of St. John, where a flagpole erected near a casualty hut in Hyde Park fell upon the plaintiff who was lying on the ground nearby, with his head in his wife's lap. If this principle is extended further, an injunction may be issued against a hostel warden if any of its inmates escape from the hostel room and cause injury to others outside.
In Klaus Mittelbachert v. East India Hotels Ltd. the plaintiff, a German national, was a co-pilot in Lufthansa airlines. He stayed in a hotel of the defendants. The hotel had a swimming-pool equipped with a diving-board. He met with an accident while diving. Later on he died due to the injuries sustained by him. The court found that the design of the swimming-pool was defective, and held of conclusion which necessarily emerged was that the swimming-pool of the defendant's hotel was a trap. It was a 'hazardous premises' in the sense in which the term is used in the law of torts. The liability of the defendants for adverse consequences flowing from the use of the swimming-pool which was held to be hazardous premises would be absolute. The High Court reiterated the view taken in Oleum gas leak case that once the activity carried on is found to be hazardous or inherently dangerous, the person carrying on such activity is liable to make good the loss caused to any other person by his activity, irrespective of the fact whether he took reasonable care while carrying on his activity.
Exceptions to the rule
The main exceptions are the following:
Damage due to natural user of land
In the judgment given by the House of Lords in Rylands v. Fletcher, Lord Cairns made a distinction between natural and non-natural user of land and held that the rule is applicable only to non-natural user of land. The working of mines in the ordinary course of mining is a natural user of land and consequently damage caused by percolating water such working gives no cause for action. Sir John Salmond stated "Almost all use of land involves some alteration of its natural condition and it seems impossible to say how far this alteration may go before the use of land becomes non-natural or extraordinary."
Things naturally on land and not essential dangerous
In respect of things naturally on land, the principle has no application. In Noble v. Harrison the defendant was held not liable for injury caused to the plaintiff by the fall of the branch of an apparently good tree in the defendant's land. In Pontardawe R.D.C. v. Moore Gwyn it was held that a landowner was not liable in respect of rocks on his land which owing to weathering were breaking away and causing damage to persons in a valley beneath, since they were part of a natural formation and their presence was not due to quarrying or any other operation.
In Goldman v. Hargrave, it was held that an action in negligence would lie where a fire initially caused by lightning striking a tree spread to a neighbour's property. The basis of the occupier's duty to his neighbour was regarded as either "adoption" of the hazard or "the neglect of action in the face of something which may damage his neighbour". Accordingly, an occupier of land on which there occurs a hazard to adjoining occupiers, of which he has knowledge or the means of knowledge, may owe a duty of care to such neighbours.
Consent of plaintiff
This exception merely illustrates the principle of volenti nonfit injuria as where the plaintiff has either expressly or impliedly agreed to the bringing in of some dangerous substance on his land which happens to cause injury to him subsequently.
In Peters v. Prince of Wales Theatre (Birmingham) Ltd. the plaintiff had leased from the defendants shop premises forming part of the defendants' building which contained a theatre and a rehearsal room. When the lease was granted the plaintiff knew that the rehearsal room was fitted with a system of sprinklers, which also extended to his shop, designed to discharge automatically large quantities of water in case of a fire. Owing to an exceptionally severe frost, and not to any default on the part of the defendants, the sprinklers burst and water percolated to the plaintiff's shop and damaged his goods. In an action by the plaintiff against the defendants for damages it was held that the doctrine of Rylands v. Flecher did not apply as the plaintiff had impliedly consented to the presence of the sprinklers. The plaintiff's action therefore failed.
Where the injury is caused to the plaintiff from a thing which is maintained in the premises for the common benefit of both, the plaintiff and the defendant, the latter will not be held liable. Thus in Carstairs v. Taylor the defendant, the occupant of the upper storey of a building, was held not liable to the plaintiff, the occupant of the lower storey, for damage caused to him by the escape of water from a waterbox in the upper storey.
But where water is brought on the defendant's land in excessive quantities for his own benefit, as for washing cinematograph films, the exception will not apply and the defendant will be liable.
Act of stranger
The rule in Rylands v. Fletcher is not applicable to damage due to the act of a stranger. Thus if a trespasser lights a fire on my land, I am not liable if it burns my neighbour's property, unless with knowledge of its existence I have failed to extinguish it within a reasonable time. If the harm was due to the act of a stranger the rule does not apply.
The intervention of irresponsible and mischievous acts of two minor boys which really caused injury to the plaintiff was considered sufficient to absolve the defendant from liability in Perry v. Kendricks Transport Ltd. The real cause was the act of the strangers, for whose acts the occupier of the land is in no sense responsible because he cannot control them.
The rule in Rylands v. Fletcher (supra) can be excluded by statute. In Green v. Chelsea Water Works Co. a main belonging to a waterworks company, which was authorised by Parliament to lay the main, burst without negligence on the part of the company and the plaintiff's premises were flooded. The company was held not liable. On the other hand, in Charing Cross Electric Co. v. Hydraulic Power Co., where the facts were similar, the defendants were held to have no exemption upon the interpretation of the statute.
Default of plaintiff
If a person knows that there is a danger of his mine being flooded by his neighbour's operation on adjacent land and courts the danger by doing some act which renders the flooding probable he cannot complain. So in Ponting v. Noakes the plaintiff's horse reached over the defendant's boundary, nibbled some poisonous tree there and died. Accordingly it was held the plaintiff could recover nothing for the damage which was due to the horse's own intrusion.
If the injury due to the escape of a noxious thing would not have occurred but for the unusual sensitiveness of the plaintiff's property, the defendant may not be liable. The Judicial Committee in Eastern and S. African Telegraph Co. Ltd. v. Cape Town Tramways Co. Ltd., where an escape of electricity injured a peculiarly sensitive apparatus on the plaintiff's land, it was held that the defendant not liable and it was considered as due to the plaintiff's default.