Simply stated the rule of strict liability makes the defendant liable for accidental harms caused without any intention and negligence on his part. In other words, sometimes the law recognizes ‘no fault’ liability. The undertakers of hazardous or dangerous activities have to compensate for the damage caused irrespective of any carelessness on their part. The basis of liability is the foreseeable risk inherent in the very nature of the activities. In this respect, principle of strict liability resembles negligence, but differs, as here the defendant would be liable even if he could not by reasonable care have avoided the damage.
The rule laid down in Rylands v Fletcher is called the rule of strict liability (it is not called the rule of ‘absolute liability’ because of the various exceptions to it). The rule laid down in M.C. Mehta’s case is called the rule of absolute liability i.e., stricter than strict liability (as it does not recognize any exceptions).
Rule in Rylands v Fletcher
In Rylands v Fletcher (1868) LR 3 HL 330, the defendant got a reservoir constructed through independent contractors over his land for providing water to his mill. When the reservoir was filled, water flowed down the plaintiff’s neighbouring coal mine causing damage. There was some negligence on the part of the contractors. As the engineers were independent contractors, the defendants could not be made vicariously liable for their negligence. Even though defendant had not been negligent he was held liable.
The basis of liability was laid down by Blackburn J. in these words: “The rule of law is that the person who, for his own purpose, brings on his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it in at his risk; and if he does not do so is prima facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape.” Thus, a man acts at his peril and is the insurer of the safety of his neighbour against accidental harms.
The following three conditions are essential to apply the Rylands rule:
(1) Dangerous thing – The defendant should bring or collect on his land some dangerous thing i.e. a thing likely to do mischief if it escapes. The rule has been applied to water, gas, electricity, vibrations, poisonous trees, explosives, noxious fumes and rusty wire. The liability exists whether the land is or is not owned by the defendant.
(2) Escape – The thing causing the damage must escape to the area outside the occupation and control of the defendant. Thus, if there is projection of the branches of a poisonous tree on the neighbour’s land this amounts to an escape and if the cattle lawfully there on the neighbour’s land are poisoned by eating the leaves of the same, the defendant will be liable under the rule [Cheater v Cater (1908) 1 K.B. 247].
However, in Giles v Walker (1820) 24 QBD 656, it was held that the owner of the land is not bound to prevent the growth of thistles of it and he is not responsible for the escape of thistle seeds. The thing escaping should’ve been under the occupation and control of the defendant.
In Airs. Read v Lyons & Co. (1947) A.C. 158, the defendants undertook the management and control of an Ordnance Factory where they made high explosive shells for the Government. There was an explosion in the factory in which the plaintiff and some others employed within the factory are injured. Even though the shell which had exploded was a dangerous thing, it was held that the defendants were not liable because there was no “escape” of the thing outside the defendant’s premises.
In Firth v Bowling Iron Co. (1878) 3 CPD 254, the defendant’s land adjoining the plaintiffs was fenced by a wire rope. Through exposure the rope decayed and pieces of it fell on the grass on the plaintiff’s land, whose cow in grazing swallowed one of the pieces, and died in consequence. The defendants were held liable.
(3) Non-natural use of land – For the use to be non-natural it must be some special use (e.g. keeping 30 gas cylinders in residential house) bringing with it increased danger to others and must not merely be the ordinary use of land or such a use as is proper for the general benefit of the community. Fire in a house in a grate is an ordinary, natural, everyday use of the fireplace in the room and if this fire spreads to the adjoining premises the liability under the rule cannot arise. Growing trees (non-poisonous) on one’s land are natural use of land.
In Noble v Harrison (1926) 2 K.B. 332, the branch of a non-poisonous tree growing on defendant’s land, which overhung on the highway, suddenly broke and fell on plaintiff’s vehicle passing along the highway. The branch had broken due to some latent defect. Held that the defendant could not be made liable under the Rylands rule.
Generally, an employer is not liable for the wrongful act done by an independent contractor. However, it is no defence to the application of this rule that the act causing damage had been done by an independent contractor. In Rylands v. Fletcher itself, the defendants were held liable even though they had got the job done from the independent contractors.
Similarly, in T.C. Balakrishnan Menon v. T.R. Subramanian an explosive made out of a coconut shell filled with explosive substance, instead of rising into the sky and exploding there, ran at a tangent, fell amidst the crowd and exploded, causing serious injuries to the respondent. One of the questions for consideration before the Kerala High Court was whether the appellants, who had engaged an independent contractor to attend to the exhibition of fireworks, would be liable. It was held that the explosive is an “extra hazardous” object and attracts the application of the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher. The persons using such an object are liable even for the negligence of their independent contractor.