Strict Liability. In both tort and criminal law, strict liability exists when a defendant is liable for committing an action, regardless of what his/her intent or mental state was when committing the action.
Strict liability is a standard of liability under which a person is legally responsible for the consequences flowing from an activity even in the absence of fault or criminal intent on the part of the defendant.
Strict Liability as Applied to Criminal Law
In criminal law, strict liability is generally limited to minor offenses. Criminal law classifies strict liability as one of five possible mens rea (mental states) that a defendant may have in pursuit of the crime.
The other four are “acting knowingly”, “acting purposely”, “acting with recklessness”, and “acting with negligence” The mens rea of strict liability typically results in more lenient punishments than the other four mentes rea. Typically in criminal law, the defendant’s awareness of what he is doing would not negate a strict liability mens rea (for example, being in possession of drugs will typically result in criminal liability, regardless of whether the defendant knows that he is in possession of the drugs).
The Liability as Applied in Tort Law
In tort law, there are two broad categories of activities for which a plaintiff may be held strictly liable – possession of certain animals and abnormally dangerous activities. additionally, in the area of torts known as products liability, there is a sub-category known as strict products liability which applies when a defective product for which an appropriate defendant holds responsiblity causes injury to an appropriate plaintiff.
The classification of strict liability has been without controversy. Some scholars oppose the concept for reasons commonly related to the unfairness of a defendant being held liable for something unrelated to the defendant’s intentions (or lack thereof). Others support the classification, with some reasoning that the more lenient punishments which accompany strict liability offenses mitigate the potential unfairness related to the classification.
In some torts the defendant is liable even though the damage to the plaintiff occurred without intention or negligence on the defendant’s part. These are usually called torts of strict liability, the most important examples being liability for dangerous animals and liability under the rule in Rylands V. Fletcher (1866) L.R 1 Ex. 265.
Thus, for instance, if A keeps a wild animal, such as an elephant, a lion or a monkey, he will be liable for any damage caused by the animal, even though the damage was unintended by him and he was in no way careless in allowing it to happen.
Motive and malice
Motive means the reason behind the person’s doing a particular act. Motive is generally irrelevant in the law of torts. Thus, if the defendant’s act is unlawful, the fact that he had a good motive for doing it will not exonerate him from.
For example, if A locks his adult sister in a room to prevent her from going out with a man whom he A believes to be of bad character. A will be liable to B for false imprisonment, and the fact that a had a good motive will not excuse him.
Conversely, if the defendants act was lawful, the fact that he had bad motive for doing it will not make him liable, an example of the latter is Bradford Corporation V. Pickles.
Facts of the case
The defendant was annoyed because the plaintiff corporation has refused to purchase his land at an inflated price in connection with their scheme supplying water to the town. By way of spite, he abstracted water which flowed in undefined channels under his land, and thereby prevented the water from reaching the plaintiffs’ adjoining reservoirs.
It was held:
That the defendants was not liable to the plaintiffs, since he has committed no tort. Abstracting the water was a lawful use of his own land, and the fact that his motives for doing so were malicious was irrelevant.
There are some torts, however, in which malice is relevant. Malice in the law of torts has three distinct meanings:
- It may mean “spite” or “ill-will”
- It may mean “wrong or improper motive”, in the sense of a motive which the law does not recognize as legitimate;
- It may mean “the intentional doing of a wrongful act without just cause or excuse”.
Malice in the third sense, which means simply “intentional conduct,” is a purely technical form of words used in pleadings. In its second sense, the presence of malice in the defendant’s conduct may prevent him from relying on certain legal defences, notably fair comment and qualified privilege in defamation actions. Malice in this sense is also an essential ingredient of the tort of malicious prosecution.
In the first sense, the presence of malice in the defendant’s conduct is a factor to be taken into account in determining liability in nuisance.