Daniels Law

Strict Liability vs. Absolute Liability

March 13, 2023 · Personal Injury
Lady justice

In many personal injury lawsuits, you must prove the defendant acted negligently to win your case. However, there are a few situations where the court may find the defendant responsible, even if they acted reasonably. 

Depending on the jurisdiction, these situations may involve strict liability or absolute liability. Read on to learn more about strict liability vs. absolute liability.

What Is Strict Liability?

Under California law, the court may hold a defendant strictly liable even if they did not act negligently. If strict liability applies, the defendant could have acted completely reasonably and responsibly and still be held liable for damages that befell the injured plaintiff.

An example of strict liability under California law occurs in cases of dog bites. When someone's dog bites and injures you in California, the court holds the dog owner to a strict liability standard. 

In these cases, proving the dog owner's negligence, recklessness, or carelessness is unnecessary. Instead, your burden of proof is only that the dog bit you. The owner may be a responsible and upstanding citizen and dog owner. However, if their dog bites and injures you, they can be held responsible for the damages caused by their dog.

In a recent California dog bite case, the injured plaintiff's counsel requested a special verdict form that reflected the strict liability theory:

  1. Does the defendant own the dog?
  2. Did the dog injure the plaintiff? 
  3. If yes, proceed to questions regarding damage.

In a strict liability case, the court has no interest in the dog owner's responsible or negligent actions. This is reflected in the questions above. 

Another example of strict liability law occurs in product liability cases. When discussing liability for a product, the rule of strict liability dictates that a seller, manufacturer, or distributor of the defective product is liable to the victim injured by the product, regardless of the defendant's intent or negligent actions.

For example, suppose Company XYZ manufactures and sells a defective and unreasonably dangerous product that injures a user. In this case, Company XYZ would be held strictly liable for the damages inflicted by the product.

Sometimes strict liability is confused with absolute liability. This is easy to do, as strict liability and absolute liability may be used interchangeably in certain U.S. jurisdictions.

What Is Absolute Liability?

Absolute liability is a liability standard enforced in some legal jurisdictions. Normally, to be convicted of a crime, you must commit the crime and have had the intent to commit the crime. This intention is called mens rea, or "guilty mind."

In some jurisdictions, absolute liability refers to strict liability. In other jurisdictions, the concepts are similar but have distinct rules. 

Like strict liability, absolute liability generally does not require the mental element of mens rea. The court can reach a conviction by proving the defendant committed the act. However, defenses may be available for strict liability that are not available to someone accused of an absolute liability crime.

The Biggest Difference Between the Two Principles

Some jurisdictions distinguish between the two rules, while others do not. Canada distinguishes between strict liability and absolute liability. In Canada, you can prove both strict liability and absolute liability without the mental element of intent. However, strict liability provides certain defenses that are unavailable to the Canadian defendant accused of absolute liability.

In India, absolute liability evolved from strict liability as a more stringent rule. In India, similar to Canada, strict liability allows the defendant several defenses or exceptions, while absolute liability does not. Under absolute liability in Indian courts, if you can prove that the defendant committed the guilty act, no eligible defense remains for the defendant. 

In U.S. law, strict liability applies in three types of cases:

  1. When the accused kept wild animals that escaped and rendered damage.
  2. When the accused committed unusually dangerous activities, which resulted in damage.
  3. Some product liability cases resulting in damage.

Applicability of the Honest and Reasonable Mistake Difference

Sometimes making an honest and reasonable mistake is considered a legitimate defense. However, in the case of strict liability, a mistake is not a valid legal defense. Even if the defendant honestly and reasonably believed something to be true, it is not a defense.

An example of this would be if a bartender lived in an area where selling alcohol to underage buyers is a strict liability offense. 

Suppose an underage patron presented a realistic and convincing fake identification. The minor appeared to be at least 21 years old and gave no clue that they may be underage. If the bartender served the minor an alcoholic substance, the bartender can be held strictly liable, even though they honestly and reasonably believed the minor was of age.

Escape of a Dangerous Activity or Condition

If the defendant was keeping a dangerous wild animal, they have knowledge of and accept the potential risks of liability in doing so, even if it is legal to keep the animal. The animal owner accepts their duty of care to ensure the animal causes no harm to people. 

Thus, if the animal causes injury, the owner is held strictly responsible. One exception to this U.S. rule of absolute or strict liability is when the animal is kept for entertainment or education. For example, wild animals in a zoo or circus.

However, this can apply to domesticated animals if they have shown a propensity for harm. For example, a court may not hold an owner strictly liable for a dog's first attack. However, subsequent attacks are likely to be met with strict liability.

Abnormally dangerous activities involve a risk of serious harm to a person or property, which cannot be avoided by using care. This risk must also be considered an uncommon activity. The activity does not need to be rare, but should not be common. For example, driving a motor vehicle is dangerous but not uncommon, so it would not be considered an abnormally dangerous activity. 

Abnormally dangerous activities are sometimes called ultrahazardous activities. These are activities so dangerous that they cannot avoid the likelihood of causing damage. A common example is blasting rocks because it damages large areas without the defendant's total control.

Payment of Compensation

If the judge finds the defendant guilty, the court will impose reasonable compensation for your damages. Compensation could include:

  • Economic damages
  • Non-economic damages
  • Punitive damages

It's also possible your case may reach a settlement before going to trial. Your attorney can help you negotiate a fair settlement during your personal injury claims process.

The Rylands vs. Fletcher Ruling

The 1868 landmark case of Rylands v. Fletcher deals with liability.

Fletcher operated underground coal mines adjacent to the land where Rylands built a water reservoir for his mill in Lancashire, England. During the reservoir's building, Ryland hired contractors and engineers who inadvertently learned through their work that they were building the reservoir over abandoned mines. However, Rylands was unaware of this fact.

The workers completed the reservoir. Later, the reservoir broke and flooded Fletcher's mines, causing damage to Fletcher's properties. Fletcher sued Rylands, and the court held Rylands strictly liable for the damage.

In the court's discussion, they considered the way Rylands used his land to be unnatural. This is similar to how modern courts have described inconsistent land use or where one party causes non-reciprocal risks to another.

This ruling spurred the development of the theories of strict liability and absolute liability in many jurisdictions worldwide.

Need Legal Representation? Schedule a Consultation Today

The strict liability lawyers at Daniels Law can offer you exceptional legal representation. If you have a question regarding liability in a personal injury accident, we can help.

 Contact us today to schedule a consultation.

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