Doctrine of Strict Liability and Absolute Liability

Author-Velagada Mounika, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar College of Law, Andhra University


Generally, Strict liability and Absolute liability comes to play when there is a negligence resulting in causing environmental pollution. These liabilities are based on, No Fault Liability which means when a harm caused by a person ,who is liable to another person despite he is not negligent in causing harm or no intention to cause harm or he was careful.

In 19th century (England) the principle of Strict liability was evolved in Ryland V. Fletcher case, the strict liability famously known as “The Rules in Ryland V. Fletcher case[1]. And the evolution of absolute liability in Mc Mehta v. Union of India case here it raises the standard and decree of liability, making it an “absolute,” one. These civil law principles transforming environmental and constitutional principles, and also from recognition of civil rights to fundamental rights. This is why the no fault liability plays a important role in claiming compensation from the defendant.


1.No fault liability

2.strict liability

3. absolute liability

4.Non natural use of land

5.Polluter pay

6.principal pay

7.Environmental pollution



It means that an individual who keeps  harmful substances or Dangerous thing in his place  then he will be liable for the damage of plaintiff if it is escapes from his premises in any manner.

For the application of strict liability there are essentials if all are satisfied then it comes under the Strict liability.

Historical Background :

Strict liability is the  principle that, first foundation laid from the case  Ryland V. Fletcher[2] in the year 1868


In a place there were two men one is Ryland and another is Fletcher, who lived each  other. Fletcher who had a mill which requires Huge  energy to work. So, in his land Defendant constructed a reservoir and  he appointed a engineer. In Ryland’s land there were old mine shafts which was unnoticed by the engineer. And due to the negligence of engineer later construction, water from the reservoir break out and rushed into the mine shafts of plaintiff. Ryland filed sue against fletcher in Trail court, Court held that Fletcher was unaware of the abandoned mine shaft and he is not negligent. So, fletcher is not liable. Then Ryland goes on appeal to the higher court.


  1. whether the respondent is held legally responsible for the act done by Servant and without his negligence?
  2. Whether the construction of reservoir in fletcher’s land comes under natural use of land ?

Judgement :

The house of lords gave decision in favour of Plaintiff and held that the defendant is liable, And for the acts done by the servant, Master is liable. The construction of reservoir is not natural use of land. Sic utere tuo it alienum non laedas which means everyone should use his land for natural use so, that you don’t injure other people.

Strict liability Principle was originated from this case and the Rule had essentials and exceptions. After this case many cases are solved under this Rule of strict liability.

This principal says if there is no negligence on his side then the defendant has to prove his innocence and this burden always  lies on defendant.

Essentials / Elements / Pre-requisites

1.Dangerous thing :

Here this word “dangerous” means that it may cause any harm if it is escapes from the premises of respondent. It simply states that liability for the damages on the defendant when the thing escaped from the  land or premises of the defendant should be dangerous thing

In Ryland V. Fletcher case the water stored in the reservoir is considered as the dangerous thing on defendant’s land.

So, this principle states that the dangerous thing can be any poisonous gases, venomous fumes electricity, Chemicals and so on can be termed as dangerous things.

  1. Escape :

It is the 2nd  Essential of strict liability, which plays a key role in the cases. Here escape means the thing causing harm must breakout or run out of the premises of the defendant premises.

It means that the escaped object was outside the area and control of defendant.

Ponting v. Noakes Case [3]

Here  the ponting horse was entered into the Noake’s fence and ate few leaves from  yew trees, which is a venomous tree. And the plaintiff’s horse was died and he sued the defendant in the court.

The bench had lay down that the defendant was not liable under Strict liability because there was a full confine of yew trees and There is no escape from the defendant’s land.


Read v. Lyons & Co., [4]  


Similarly there  was no escape and, therefore, there was no liability under the rule. In this case, the plaintiff was an employee in the defendant’s ammunition factory. inside the defendant’s premises she was working, while performing her duties a shell, which was being Manufactured there, exploded.

  1. Non natural use of land :

Here in the  Ryland V. Fletcher case huge amount water stored  in reservoir is non natural use of land and the use of land should be in natural way like keeping water for domestic purpose.

Sochacki v. Sas[5]

In this case court held that the fire in a house in a grate is an ordinary purpose and every days natural use. If this fire spreads the neighbouring premises ,then there is no applicability of strict liability.

T.C. Balakrishnan Menon v. T.R. Subramanian, [6]

In this case court held that the use of explosives in open ground even on festival days .it come under the non natural use of land and the defendant held liable.

The above are the three essentials of Strict liability.

Act done by independent contractor:

Generally, an employer is not liable for the wrong committed by the independent contractors. However it is not a defence in the rule of strict liability in which the damage caused by the independent contractor.

In Ryland V. Fletcher Case court held that the defendant was held liable even though he get his work done by independent contractors.

Defences / Exceptions :

The following are the recognised exceptions or defences by the Ryland V. Fletcher case and they are:

  1. Plaintiff’s own default :

  It was a good defence for the defendant, if plaintiff entered voluntarily into the defendant’s land  and causes damage by himself then the defendant is not liable. In this case

Ponting v. Noakes  court said that the horse itself entered into the defendant’s land and died due to nibbled of yew tree leaves and here in this the defendant is not held liable because there is no escape of any Harmful substance.

2. Act of God or vis major or Damnum fatale

The Harm which directly results from the natural causes and that can’t be foreseen and controlled by human beings.

In relevance to the principle of strict liability; if the act was unpredictable,  without any human intervention and  caused by some super natural forces then there is no liability on defendant.

Winfield and Pollock :

“Act of God may be defined as an operation of natural forces unexpected that no human foresight or skill could reasonably be expected anticipate it.” [7]

Nichols v. Marsland,[8]

Here  the defendant constructed a dam with a normal flow  on his land. That year’s rainfall was heavy and unforgettable . Due to heavy rains the embankment of lakes burst and rushed out into the plaintiff’s four bridges. And the plaintiff sued defendant. The court ruled that there was no liability on defendant.

3. Consent of plaintiff

In this exception, where plaintiff agreed expressly or impliedly of bringing any Harmful thing on his land which cause injury to him  at a subsequent time. Then the defendant is not liable and it comes under the principle of Volenti non fit injuria  which means no wrong is done to the person who gave his consent voluntarily.

  • Common benefit

 When the injury  is caused to the petitioner by the act or escape of Dangerous thing which was

Kept for the benefit of the both petitioner and Respondent then it is called as common benefit. Here the rule of strict liability is inapplicable because they both are benefiting from it. Hence they both are not liable.

Anderson v. Oppenheimer [9]

In this case the plaintiff lessees floor in the defendant house , the tank in the house was burst and flooded the floor. The defendant is not liable here because the tank is used for the benefit of both.

  • Act of third party

  It means that when damage is caused due to acts done by the third person and the defendant has no control over him; no Master and Servant relation. If the act done by the stranger can be predictable then the Respondent should take care to avoid damages

Box v. Jab[10]

Here In this case defendant had a reservoir  and a overflow Of water from it due to the blockage of water by the stranger. And hence court held  here the defendant is not liable.

  • Statutory Authority:

 It is considered as a strong defence But if the defendant while under statutory authority he  has any negligence on his part, it was not applicable.

Green v. Chelsea co (1864)

In this case the defendant had a  duty to continuous maintain of water supply and without any negligence of the company it’s main belonging was burst and the place of the plaintiff was flooded with water. Court decided that there no negligence on behalf of company, hence it is not liable.

The above mentioned are the defences for the defendant from the Strict liability.



  In simple  Absolute liability  =  Strict liability  – Exceptions or defences

The enterprises which is engaged in hazardous or inherently dangerous activity, while operation of such hazardous or inherently dangerous activity results in damage or harm of anyone on account of an  accident. Then the enterprise is strictly and absolutely  liable and to compensate to all those who were affected by accident.

  1. Historical Background/ Evolution:

    The Rule of absolute liability is took reference from the strict liability , here supreme court made this principle more strict without the exceptions in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India case. This is a  turning point  case in Indian history.

Facts of the case:

In Delhi which is the capital city of India , In 1985 on 4th and 6th December there was a severe gas leakage and  This was happened in one of the unit of Shriram foods and fertilizers Industries which is belongs to the Delhi Cloth Mill limited. Due to this an advocate was died who is practicing in This Hazari Court  and many other people also affected by this incident. This action was brought by M.C. Mehta through public interest litigation.


A strong decision was taken by supreme court  to evolve a new principle which suitable for the present social and economic conditions of India. In this case the court ruled that the company had to pay 20 lakhs compensation.

Supreme court explanation:

Supreme court justified the rule of absolute liability on basis of two reasons:

a.Any enterprise which is carrying hazardous activities with a motive of profits have social responsibility to compensate victims from any accident , the company should absorb such loss and take the responsibility.

  1. The enterprises should discover the resources which guard against the hazardous and dangerous.

The measure of the compensation is based on how larger and prosperous enterprise; if it is larger and more prosperous then the compensation is also greater for the harm caused by the dangerous or hazardous activity by accident.

Union carbide corporation v. Union of India  (Bhopal Gas tragedy)

It is considered as world’s worst industrial disaster. The new rule laid in  oleum gas leakage case was applied in the Bhopal Gas tragedy by supreme court.

In the city of Bhopal which is in Madhya Pradesh, India had a union carbide corporation India limited plant for manufacture of pesticides. Here on 2nd December 1984 at night a sever leakage of methyl isocyanate and other gases.  The company was designed with unproven and untested technology. It is a multinational company of U.S.A and this tragedy resulted in death of 3000 people and many people were injured. Some people lost of their hearing sense , disorders relating to neurological, permanent loss of eyesight.

And after this tragedy , the public insurance Act 1991 was passed with a purpose of  immediate relief for the victims without any delay. Which was caused by the enterprise handling with hazardous substances.

Public insurance Act 1991:

The main motive of this act is to provide immediate relief to the victims, who were affected by the hazardous substances which was handled by the enterprises. This act was totally based on no fault liability principle.

This act speaks  , the owner who is dealing with Harmful substances should take insurance where the owner will get the insurance against the liability in case of any death or injury to the victim caused by hazardous substance.

Hazardous substances means chemical or physic chemical substance which cause harm to the living beings as human beings, animals, micro organisms , plants, water air land and environment.

Handling means  manufacturing, transporting, packing , storing and so on in relation with hazardous substances.

The Distinction between Strict liability and Absolute liability

                   Strict liability                Absolute Liability
1.In strict liability the rules are strict but not absolute in nature  because it has exceptions. 1. In absolute liability the rules are strict and absolute, both in nature because it doesn’t have any exceptions.
2.The damages awarded by the court are may be ordinary or compensatory. 2. The damages awarded by the court are exemplary.
3.The escape of dangerous thing is necessary from the premises of defendant. 3. The escape of hazardous or dangerous thing is not necessary from the premises of the defendant.

Which means the person injured within the premises and outside the premises. The defendant will be liable.

4.There should be non natural use of land. 4. Here Even it dangerous substance may be a natural use of land ,if it escapes then the defendant is liable, and there is no compulsory requirement of non natural use of land.

Absolute liability and Environment pollution:

Indian council enviro- legal Action V. Union of India [11]

In this case the court made compulsory of  Polluter pay principle which means that the polluter must pay for the pollution made by him and the compensation should be used to the improvement of environment and the local residential areas. In this case also the absolute liability principle was followed by the supreme court.

Visakhapatnam Gas leakage Case(2020): (Andhra Pradesh State)

In this case a styrene gas was exploded from L.G polymers enterprise due to this 11 people were died and thousands of  people are hospitalized. Here also Court applied absolute liability.

Maxims / Principles

  a.sic utere tuo it alienum non laedas

 “Use your own property in such a way that you do not injured other people’s: a maxim often used in cases of nuisance. It is misleading, since only an unreasonable interference with a neighbour’s property is actionable as a nuisance..”[12]

b.volenti non fit injuria

“No wrong is done to one who consent”.[13]

  1. Damnum fatale

Damage ordained by fate.

Damage caused by a force majeure(greater force), such as war, shipwreck, or natural catastrophic ( natural disasters)”. Vis major a Latin word which means  a greater force.


Any way  the rule of absolute liability is a turning point judgement and supreme court reached its milestone. In jurisprudence we study sources of law as legislation, precedent and custom. In these three legislation is the best source of law. So the absolute liability not only remain as precedent but also legislation should be made.  And the provisions will give the rights to the people which helps them in speedy justice.

If the Legislation is made then it undergo all the problems and give solutions before arise of problem in the society.


  1. Books / Commentaries / Journals Referred
  •           DR. R.k. BANGIA
  • Dr. N. Maheshwara Swamy

2. Cases Referred

1.Ryland V. Fletcher UKHL 1, L.R. 3 H.L. 330.

2.M.C Mehta V. Union of India

3.Ponting v. Noakes1894-2 Q. B. 281 : (63 L. J. Q. B. 549)

4.Read v. Lyons & Co., (1974 )A.C. 156

5.Sochacki v. Sas (1947) 1 All E.R. 344

6.T.C. Balakrishnan Menon v. T.R. Subramanian A.I.R. 1968 Kerala, 151

7.Nichols v. Marsland(1876) 2 Ex. D. 1

8.Balak Glass emporium v. United India  insurance co ltd AIR 1993 Ker 342

9.Anderson v. Oppenheimer 1880 5 QB 602

10.Box v. Jab1879 4 Ex D76

11.Green v. Chelsea co (1864)

12.Indian council enviro- legal Action V. Union of India AIR 1996 SC 1446

13.Visakhapatnam Gas leakage Case 2020

  1. Statutes Referred

i.The public insurance Act 1991

[1] Ryland V. Fletcher UKHL 1, L.R. 3 H.L. 330.

[2] UKHL 1, L.R. 3 H.L. 330.

[3] Indian kanoon ; Ponting v. Noakes; 1894-2 Q. B. 281 : (63 L. J. Q. B. 549)

[4] DR. R K. BANGIA; Read v J Lyons & Co(1974 )A.C. 156

[5] (1947) 1 All E.R. 344.

[6] A.I.R. 1968 Kerala, 151.


[8] (1876) 2 Ex. D. 1

[9] 1880 5 QB 602, P.S.A Pillai

[10] 1879 4 Ex D76

[11] AIR 1996 SC 1446


[13] Oxford law Dictionary

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