Strict liability

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 Rylandds 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.

Strict liability defences

Several defences could be raised by a defendant in an action for strict liability to challenge his liability. Observing carefully and critically these defences possibility is important in ascertaining the outcome of the case. They include:

  1. Consent of the complaint
  2. Acts of God
  3. Act of a third party
  4. plaintiffs negligence

Rylands V fletcher

In this case, the defendants employed independent contractors to build a reservoir on their land. The contractor carelessly omitted to block up some disused shafts on the site which communicated with the plaintiffs’ coal mine beneath the reservoir, so that, when the reservoir was filled, water escaped down ‘the shaft and flooded the plaintiff’s mine.

More so, the defendants’ conduct did not appear to come within the scope of any existing tort; they were not liable for trespass, because the damage was not direct and immediate; nor for nuisance, because the damage was not due to any recurrent condition or state of affairs on their land; nor for negligence, because they had not been careless, and they were not liable for the negligence of their independent contractors.

However, they were held strictly liable for the damage on the basis of the following rule propounded by Blackburn., which is now known as the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher.

The rule in Rylands V Fletcher composes a major feature of tort law, with much interest on strict liability for damages caused by the escape of hazardous substances or materials from one’s property. It was a celebrated landmark case in English law. In 1868, the court ruled that the person who brings something on their land that is not naturally there, and which is likely to cause issues or damage if it escapes, is strictly liable for any resulting damage.

Strict liability tort cases

  1. Cambridge water Co v Eastern Counties Leather (1994) 2 AC 264.
  2. Transco plc v Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council (2003) UKHL 61
  3. St Helen’s Smelting Co. v tipping (1865) 11 HL Cas 642
  4. Rylands v Fletcher
Strict liability tort examples

In Umudje v. Shell-B.P Petroleum Development Co. of Nigeria Ltd. This action arose out of certain activities of the defendants carried out in the course of oil exploration in the Mid-western (now Edo and Delta) States. The plaintiffs, who owned land adjacent to the area of exploration complained:

  1. that, in the course of road-building, the defendants had blocked and diverted a natural stream, thus interfering seriously with the plaintiff’s fishing rights, and
  2. that the defendants had accumulated oil waste on land under their control and that this oil had escaped on to the plaintiff’s land and caused damage there.

With respect to the first complaint, the Supreme court held that under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher’ it is now generally accepted that a person who diverts a natural stream or causes the same to become blocked and in this way diverts its natural course does so at his peril, and is liable for any damage caused by the failure of his works to contain the diverted streams, although there was no negligence on his part.

However, in the present case, the defendants were not liable because their blocking of the stream had not caused flooding of the plaintiff’s land but merely starvation of water and fish; there was, in other words, no escape of water from the defendant’s land to that of the plaintiff.

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