strict liability

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Strict Liability

Absolute legal responsibility for an injury that can be imposed on the wrongdoer without proof of carelessness or fault.

Strict liability, sometimes called absolute liability, is the legal responsibility for damages, or injury, even if the person found strictly liable was not at fault or negligent. Strict liability has been applied to certain activities in tort, such as holding an employer absolutely liable for the torts of her employees, but today it is most commonly associated with defectively manufactured products. In addition, for reasons of public policy, certain activities may be conducted only if the person conducting them is willing to insure others against the harm that results from the risks the activities create.

In Product Liability cases involving injuries caused by manufactured goods, strict liability has had a major impact on litigation since the 1960s. In 1963, in Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, 59 Cal. 2d 57, 377 P.2d 897, the California Supreme Court became the first court to adopt strict tort liability for defective products. Injured plaintiffs have to prove the product caused the harm but do not have to prove exactly how the manufacturer was careless. Purchasers of the product, as well as injured guests, bystanders, and others with no direct relationship with the product, may sue for damages caused by the product.

An injured party must prove that the item was defective, that the defect proximately caused the injury, and that the defect rendered the product unreasonably dangerous. A plaintiff may recover damages even if the seller has exercised all possible care in the preparation and sale of the product.

In tort law strict liability has traditionally been applied for damages caused by animals. Because animals are not governed by a conscience and possess great capacity to do mischief if not restrained, those who keep animals have a duty to restrain them. In most jurisdictions the general rule is that keepers of all animals, including domesticated ones, are strictly liable for damage resulting from the Trespass of their animals on the property of another. Owners of dogs and cats, however, are not liable for their pets' trespasses, unless the owners have been negligent or unless strict liability is imposed by statute or ordinance.

For purposes of liability for harm other than trespass, the law distinguishes between domesticated and wild animals. The keeper of domesticated animals, which include dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, and horses, is strictly liable for the harm they cause only if the keeper had actual knowledge that the animal had the particular trait or propensity that caused the harm. The trait must be a potentially harmful one, and the harm must correspond to the knowledge. In the case of dogs, however, some jurisdictions have enacted statutes that impose absolute liability for dog bites without requiring knowledge of the dog's viciousness.

Keepers of species that are normally considered "wild" in that region are strictly liable for the harm these pets cause if they escape, whether or not the animal in question is known to be dangerous. Because such animals are known to revert to their natural tendencies, they are considered to be wild no matter how well trained or domesticated.

Strict liability for harm resulting from abnormally dangerous conditions and activities developed in the late nineteenth century. It will be imposed if the harm results from the miscarriage of an activity that, though lawful, is unusual, extraordinary, exceptional, or inappropriate in light of the place and manner in which the activity is conducted. Common hazardous activities that could result in strict liability include storing explosives or flammable liquids, blasting, accumulating sewage, and emitting toxic fumes. Although these activities may be hazardous, they may be appropriate or normal in one location but not another. For example, storing explosives in quantity will create an unusual and unacceptable risk in the midst of a large city but not in a remote rural area. If an explosion occurs in the remote area, strict liability will be imposed only if the explosives were stored in an unusual or abnormal way.


Negligence; Proximate Cause; Rylands v. Fletcher.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

strict liability

n. automatic responsibility (without having to prove negligence) for damages due to possession and/or use of equipment, materials or possessions which are inherently dangerous such as explosives, wild animals, poisonous snakes, or assault weapons. This is analogous to the doctrine of "res ipsa loquitur in which control, ownership and damages are sufficient to hold the owner liable even without proof of specific negligenct acts or omissions. (See: negligence, liability, res ipsa loquitur)

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.

strict liability

1 in tort and delict, liability without proof of fault, i.e. that the mere happening of a proscribed event incurs liability but always subject to certain defence. The defence recognized in common law cases are:
  1. (i) act of the Queen's enemies;
  2. (ii) Act of God, or in Scotland damnum fatale;
  3. (iii) the intervention of a third party.

English law has historically supported many instances of strict liability, as did (and still, to an extent, does) Scots law. In English law the main instances are liability for nuisance, non-natural user of land, the escape of fire and, at common law, for wild animals (ferae naturae). In Scotland it has now been established that neither nuisance nor non-natural user are instances of strict liability but are instead governed by the concept of fault, with the exception, until the matter comes up for decision, of the diversion of the course of a natural stream. Liability is still strict in matters covered by the Praetorian edict in respect of innkeepers, carriers and stable-keepers, although both in Scotland and in England the hotel proprietor, as defined, is given some exemptions from the rigours of strict liability, as indeed is the carrier. Some UK legislation imposes forms of strict liability that sometimes, because of the absence of defence, goes as far as to be appropriately described as absolute liability. The UK has three main instances of statutory strict liability- the liability of the employer for employees in certain circumstances; the keeper for animals in certain circumstances; and producers and others for defective products in certain circumstances. There are others, less commonly invoked, including nuclear occurrences, oil pollution and ‘regular’ pollution.

2 in contract. Generally, liability in contract is to perform to the letter of the contract, so liability is often said to be strict. However, the parties may expressly or by implication have agreed that, for example, only reasonable care ought to be exercised. The doctrine of frustration operates to free a party in certain cases from the obligation.
3 in criminal law, strict liability is an exception to the general rule of liability, which usually demands that it is essential to show mens rea. However, many statutory crimes and offences do not require this, particularly those under the Road Traffic Acts. Again, some of these offences in the absence of defence or provisions amount to absolute liability.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006
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