Strict liability is a legal term referring to the holding of an individual or entity liable for damages or losses, without having to prove carelessness or mistake. The doctrine of strict liability is commonly applied to cases involving defective products. Such a claim relies, not on wrongdoing, but on the inherent hazards of the situation or product. To explore this concept, consider the following strict liability definition.
Definition of Strict Liability
- Liability incurred for causing damage or harm to life, limb, or property without the necessity of proving intent or negligence.
What is Strict Liability
When pursuing a legal action for liability, the plaintiff must generally prove that the defendant was somehow at fault, whether by negligence or direct fault, for the damages incurred by the plaintiff. The law, however, recognizes there are certain circumstances that are so inherently dangerous or hazardous, that there is no need for the plaintiff to prove direct fault or negligence.
Strict liability, also referred to as “absolute liability,” applies to such issues as injuries or other damages caused by a defective product, damages caused by animals, and engaging in certain hazardous activities. An individual or entity may be held strictly liable in both civil and criminal actions.
Strict Liability Torts
In civil law, a tort is an intentional or negligent act, a civil wrong, as opposed to a criminal act, which causes harm to another. A tort, then, is the basis for a civil lawsuit, and includes such acts as negligence, assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and products liability.
A strict liability tort holds a person or entity responsible for unintended consequences of his actions. In other words, some circumstances or activities are known to be fundamentally dangerous, so when something goes wrong, the perpetrator is held legally responsible.
ABC Construction company is building a road through a rural area when it encounters a rocky promontory. Although the area is rather close to a housing district, they decide to blast away the rock. A child, playing in a yard two blocks away is hit by a piece of flying rock, causing a deep laceration. ABC Construction was just going about its business, and took the usual precautions for such blasting, so negligence isn’t an issue.
The activity of blasting, however, carries with it inherent dangers, including flying debris. The child’s parents may sue the construction company for the child’s medical bills, as well as his pain and suffering, as ABC Construction is strictly liable in the situation.
Types of Strict Liability Torts
Fault in strict liability cases is not an issue. Therefore, proving that an injury or damages occurred, and that they occurred as a result of the plaintiff’s activities or product, becomes the focal point of any civil lawsuit on a strict liability tort. The law classifies three basic types of strict liability torts, though a plaintiff may argue that another situation, which does not fall within this list, falls under the umbrella of absolute liability. The types of strict liability torts include injuries or damages caused by:
Animals Owned or Possessed by the Defendant
The law recognizes the differences between domesticated animals and wild animals in considering whether a circumstance is subject to absolute liability. There are otherwise three categories of animals subject to strict liability:
The owner of livestock, which refers to animals that are generally kept as an asset, rather than a pet, is liable for any physical harm or damages caused by an animal’s intrusion onto someone else’s property. This might occur if:
- a few head of cattle broke through their fence, then wandered through a neighbor’s alfalfa crop, eating and trampling it.
- a passing car hits a horse that has come through a broken fence and wandered out onto the road
- failure to notify neighboring farms of, and to take adequate precautions to contain, a diseased herd.
Dogs in General
Dogs are special, in that they intersect two categories: livestock, and dangerous animals. While dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, some are capable of causing serious injury or damages. If an individual has a dog, regardless of breed, that is known to be dangerous, it falls under the category of “dangerous animals” for strict liability purposes.
Under the livestock category, an individual’s dogs may subject the owner to absolute liability in such circumstances as:
- A farm dog wanders off its property to kill livestock belonging to a neighboring farm
- A friendly and excited dog jumps up on a visitor, startling her, and causing her to stumble and fall
- A dog trained to guard the owner’s property attacks a utility worker as he attempts to read the home’s utility meter
In each of these cases, a normally friendly and useful dog has caused some type of damages or injury that were not necessarily the owner’s fault. The laws of most states hold dog owners responsible if their dogs bite any person, regardless of the situation or perceived fault. Each of these situations requires the dog’s owner to pay for the damages incurred by others at the “paws” of his dog.
This category refers to any pet or other animal that the owner knows has dangerous or violent tendencies. The owner may be strictly liable for any injuries or damages caused by the animal, even if he is not at fault. Commonly thought-of examples of dangerous animals include dogs kept for fighting or serious protection, such as pit bulls and rottweilers.
Dogs are not the only animals that may fall under this category, however. Situations and animals that may subject the owner to strict liability include:
- a housecat that is known for attacking small children who visit the home
- a parrot that is not social, and has previously attacked a visitor with its deadly claws
- It is not the species or breed of the animal under this category, but its known propensity for violence, that subjects the owner to strict liability.
someone in possession of a wild animal is liable for harm done by the animal to someone else’s person or property, even if the person possessing the animal has taken great care to ensure it is confined to prevent it from doing harm. In the eyes of the law, wild animals are those that have not been widely domesticated, regardless of how long the animal has lived in a captive environment. Examples of wild animals include coyotes, badgers, rattlesnakes, monkeys, elephants, lions, tigers, and bears.
Abnormally Dangerous Activities
People or entities (such as a construction company, or manufacturing company) who engage in abnormally dangerous activities, often referred to as “ultrahazardous activities,” may be held strictly liable for injuries caused to others by the activity. In order to qualify as an abnormally dangerous activity, the courts generally consider these elements:
- Did the activity involve a substantial risk of harming a person or property?
- Was the activity of such a nature that it could not be performed without risk of causing serious harm, regardless of how much care is taken to avoid it?
- Is the activity commonly engaged in by the average person in the community?
Examples of abnormally dangerous activities:
- Blasting or explosive demolition activities
- Storing explosives
- Using or transporting certain chemicals, such as combustibles and acids
- Disposing of hazardous chemical wastes
- Production or containment of radioactive emissions
- Performing controlled burns
- Certain product defects
To be successful in making a products liability claim under strict liability, the plaintiff must prove that there was a defect in the product when it left the defendant’s possession. He must also prove that he was a logical and foreseeable user of the product who used the product as it was intended. Additionally, the plaintiff must prove that he was injured by use of the product, and that it was caused by the product’s defective nature.
There are three primary types of defect in products liability cases:
- Manufacturing Defects – an irregularity or flaw in a product that was mass-produced, the defect of which makes it more dangerous. When a manufacturer sells a product in defective condition, it is strictly liable for any damages or injuries that the product causes. Having used reasonable care to prevent defects is not a valid defense in such cases.
- Design Defects – at times an entire product line is defective as a result of faulty design. The manufacturer of such products is absolutely liable for injuries or damages caused by the products. In addition, it may be held liable for any foreseeable injuries that could occur due to the design defect, if there is a cost-effective way to reconstruct the product to make it safe, but the manufacturer continues to produce and sell the defective items.
- Failure to Warn – a product manufacturer is responsible for warning consumers if there is an inherent, but not obvious, danger in using the product. For instance, the manufacturer of chocolate raisin bars makes the bars in a plant that also processes peanuts. Because it is common for some residue to remain in the equipment, which has the potential to cause serious injury or death to some people, the manufacturer must warn consumers about the possible presence of peanuts.
Defenses to Strict Liability Cases
When faced with a civil lawsuit or criminal charges of strict liability, a defendant may attempt to prove certain circumstances existed that would alleviate him of the strict liability obligation.
Assumption of Risk
Assumption of risk refers to situations in which a plaintiff knowingly and voluntarily assumed the risks inherent in a certain dangerous activity, when he chose to participate. This may apply in extreme sporting activities, such as sky diving and rock climbing. It may also apply to a plaintiff employed in a fundamentally dangerous profession. Because the injured party in both of these scenarios knew beforehand of the dangers and risks, yet made a conscious choice to engage in the activity anyway, strict liability does not apply.
Lamar is employed by the local utility company, where he is offered an opportunity to advance to the position of lineman. The promotion brings a hefty salary increase, but it requires extensive training, as the job is a dangerous. Lamar happily takes the promotion, but one year later, he falls from a high-reach aerial basket, breaking his back. Lamar would like to hold his employer responsible because they have people working in dangerous conditions.
In this example, there was no fault, no faulty equipment, and no blame on the company. Because Lamar had been clearly advised of the dangers of the job before he accepted the position, the company is not responsible under strict liability.
In most civil lawsuits for negligence, the plaintiff’s careless actions do not prevent recovery of damages. Unless, that is, the plaintiff knowingly subjected himself to the risky activity.
Marco is annoyed by the neighbor’s pit bull, which barks at the fence every time his family is trying to enjoy their back yard. Marco begins taunting the dog, shoving a rock through a break in the fence near the ground. The dog pushes his snout through and grabs Marco’s hand, leaving a nasty bite that must be treated at the emergency room.
If Marco attempts to sue the neighbor for medical expenses and other damages, based on strict liability, as the dog is obviously dangerous. Marco is unlikely to win his case, however, as he knew the dog might be dangerous before he intentionally taunted the dog to wind him up into a frenzy. Marco’s decision to put himself in harm’s way was unreasonable.
Strict Liability in Prescription Drug Case
In 1999, the mega pharmaceutical company Merk released their new non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (“NSAID”), Vioxx. Hailed as the newest and greatest answer to the aches and pains of arthritis and menstrual pain, Vioxx proved to be disastrous for the many patients who suffered strokes, heart attacks, and death while taking the drug.
While Merk denied their medication caused these problems, a study by the University of Michigan Medical School, referred to as “VIGOR,” proved an astounding correlation between taking Vioxx, and seriously increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
Merk refused to recall the drug, but eventually agreed to change the label, warning patients of the potential risks associated with taking the drug. In 2004, a second study, in the form of a clinical trial, confirmed that people taking Vioxx worldwide developed severe cardiovascular problems. Merk was finally forced to implement a global recall of Vioxx, but by that time, as many as 25 million people in the U.S. alone were taking the dangerous drug.
This strict liability case falls into the category of design defects. In this strict liability case, the formulation of the drug itself was defective, placing everyone who took it in harm’s way. Once the connection was made, individuals who suffered damages because they were taking Vioxx could sue the company under strict liability, with no need to prove that it acted negligently.
The case also falls into the “failure to warn” category, as evidence was provided that Merk’s own scientists had expressed concern over the fact that the drug dramatically increased the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
- Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Civil Liability – Responsibility for payment of damages, or for other court-imposed penalties in a civil lawsuit.
- Negligence – Failure to exercise a degree of care that would be taken by another reasonable person in the same circumstances.
- Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.