Exceptions to the Rylands rule (Defences) :

The rule of strict liability has been made subject to so many exceptions since it was propounded in 1865 that it has lost much of its sting. The following exceptions to the rule have been recognized by Rylands v Fletcher and some later cases:

(1) Plaintiff’s own default (recognized in Rylands)

In Ponting v Noakes (1894) 2 QB 281, the plaintiff’s horse nibbled the poisonous leaves on the boundary of the defendant and died. The defendant was held not liable because damage would not have occurred but for the horse’s own intrusion into the defendant’s land.

When the damage to the plaintiff’s property is caused not so much by the “escape” of the things collected by the defendant as by the unusual sensitiveness of the plaintiff’s property itself, the plaintiff cannot recover anything.

In Eastern and South African Telegraph Co. Ltd. v. Capetown Tramways Co., (1902) A.C. 381 the plaintiff’s submarine cable transmissions were disturbed by escape of electric current from the defendant’s tramways. It was found that the damage was due to the unusual sensitiveness of the plaintiff’s apparatus and such damage won’t occur to a person carrying on ordinary business, the defendant was held not liable for the escape. It was observed that “a man cannot increase the liabilities of his neighbour by applying his own property to special uses, whether for business or pleasure.”

(2) Act of God or (recognized in Rylands) – If the escape has been unforeseen and because of supernatural forces without any human intervention defence of act of God can be pleaded. Thus, storm, tempest, extraordinary rainfall, etc. fall under the category of act of God.

If the embankments of ornamental lakes give way due to extraordinary rainfall the person so collecting the water would not be liable under the rule (Nicholas v Marsland). The Supreme Court in another context said that before heavy rain can be accepted as a defence for the collapse of a culvert or bridge the defendant must indicate what anticipatory preventive action was taken (S. Vendantachatya v Highways Dept. of South Arcot, 1987).

An “act of God” as an exception to the rule of strict liability is held not available in cases of death due to electrocution as a result of falling of high tension electric wire from its pole due to lightning stroke or storm.

In S.K. Shangrung Lamkang v. State of Manipur, A.I.R. 2008 S.C. 46.  the Gauhati High Court explained that since the management of supply of electricity was a hazardous or inherently dangerous activity, when harm was caused to anyone on account of any cause in the operation of the activity, the respondents, who were responsible in respect to the said activity would be strictly and absolutely liable to compensate those who were harmed in the course of operation of the said activity. Such liability the Court held, was not to be subject to any exception to the principle of strict liability under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher,

(3) Act of third party/ stranger – Though the act of a third Party may be relied on by way of defence, the defendant may still be liable in negligence if he failed in foreseeing and guarding against the consequences to his works of that third party’s act.

In a decision of the Supreme Court in M.P. Electricity Board v. Shail Kumar, A.I.R. 2002 S.C. 551 (The Court referred to the Privy Council’s decision in Quebec Rly Light, Head, Power Co. Ltd. v. Vandry, (1920) A.C. 662.) the rule of strict liability was applied and the defect of the dangerous thing being an act of the stranger’ was not allowed because the same could have been foreseen.

In this case one Joginder Singh, aged 37 years, was riding on his bicycle on the night of 23-8-1997 while returning from his factory. A snapped live electric wire was lying on the road. There was rain and the road was partially inundated with water. The cyclist could not notice the electric wire and as he came in contact with the same, he died instantaneously due to electrocution. An action was brought against the M.P. Electricity Board by the widow and minor son of Joginder Singh.

The rule of Strict Liability was applied and it was held that the Board had statutory duty to supply electricity in the area. If the energy so transmitted causes injury or death of a human being, who gets unknowingly trapped into it, the electric supplier shall be liable for the same. If the electric wire was snapped the current should have been automatically cut off. Authorities manning such dangerous commodities have extra duty to chalk out measures to prevent such mishaps. The defence that the snapping of wire was due to the act of the stranger who might have tried to pilfer the electricity was rejected. Such act should have been foreseen by the Electricity Board and at any rate the consequences of the stranger’s act should have been prevented by the appellant Board. The Apex Court in M.P. Electric Board case, had held that if the accident was caused by the unforeseeable act of a stranger, the rule of strict liability did not apply.

Relying on the law laid down by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Shail Kumar case, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court in Bashir Ahmad Rather v. State of J. & K., A.I.R. 2008 J. & K. 15, awarded Rs. 3 lacks to each victim of electrocution. In this case high tension electric transmission line fell down on children while they were sitting in the compound of school, resulting in death and grievous injuries to the boys.

Likewise, in U.P. Power Corpn. v. Bijendra Singh, A.I.R. 2009 All. 56, the Allahabad High Court applied the principle of strict liability and held the appellant liable to pay compensation to the plaintiff-respondent, for the death of his elephant due to electrocution while walking on the road. The Court said :

If the enterprise is permitted to carry on a hazardous or inherently hazardous activity for its profit or for earning revenue, the law must presume that such permission is conditional or enterprise absorbing cost of any accident arising on account of such activity as an appropriate item of its overheads.

(4) Consent of the plaintiff In cases of volenti non fit injuria, i.e. where the plaintiff has consented to the accumulation of the dangerous things on the defendant’s land the liability under the Rylands rule does not arise. Such consent is implied where the source of danger is for the common benefit of both the plaintiff and the defendant (e.g. the water system, gas pipes or electric wiring).

Thus, in Carstairs v Taylor (1871) LR 6 Ex 217, the defendant was the plaintiff’s landlord and was living on the floor above him. Some rats damaged a rainwater box maintained by the defendant for the benefit both of himself and plaintiff, and the water running through injured plaintiff’s goods below. It was held that no action lay.

(5) Statutory authority – No action will lie for doing that which the legislature has authorized, if it were done without negligence, although it does occasion damage to anyone.