Strict liability refers to a legal doctrine in which a party is held responsible for their actions or products, and the plaintiff is not required to prove negligence or fault. A specific example of strict liability would be if someone partakes in an ultrahazardous activity, such as keeping wild animals, and another person is injured because of this.
In such a case, the defendant charged with the strict liability crime will likely be held liable for their animals harming the plaintiff. Even if the defendant did take all necessary precautions and followed safety requirements, the defendant would still likely be held responsible due to the nature of strict liability crimes.
The criminal law system states that, generally, people are only punished when they have what is known as “mens rea,” or a guilty mind. Meaning, if you intentionally break the law, you did so with a guilty mind. Strict liability crimes do not require the mens rea element. Strict liability crimes are considered to be criminal regardless of the person’s intentions.
Thus, even if the person engaging in the crime was not aware that their actions were criminal, nor did they possess criminal intent, that person who committed strict liability crimes would still likely be convicted.
What Are Some Examples of Strict Liability Crimes?
There are several examples of strict liability crimes. Some of the most common examples include:
- Statutory Rape: It is illegal for anyone to have sex with anyone younger than the age of consent, generally 18 years old. This is a strict liability crime because even if the defendant believed that the plaintiff was of legal and consenting age, the fact remains that they were not. You do not need to intend to have sex with a minor, and your mind set does not matter; it is still a crime;
- Selling Alcohol to Minors: This is similar to statutory rape in that it is considered a crime, even if the defendant believed the minors were of age, because the minors were not of age; and
- Traffic Offenses: An example of a traffic offense as a strict liability crime would be speeding. You will likely still get a speeding ticket, regardless of whether you personally believed or were aware that you were speeding.
There are also different categories of strict liability crimes:
- Keeping Wild Animals: As previously mentioned, keeping wild animals is an example of a strict liability crime due to its nature as an ultrahazardous activity. Anyone keeping a wild animal will be held responsible for any harm that that animal may cause another person;
- Ultrahazardous Activities: In addition to keeping a wild animal, there are several other examples of ultrahazardous activities as its own category. An ultrahazardous activity is any act that is so inherently dangerous, the person performing it may be held liable for injuries to other people even if they took every reasonable step to prevent injury. Some examples of ultrahazardous activities include transporting volatile chemicals, using explosives, and controlled burning of buildings or fields; and
- Consumer Product Liability: The manufacturer or seller of a defective product that causes injury or poses a danger to the common consumer will be held liable under strict liability. Any party responsible for any part of the manufacturing process may be held liable, as well as any seller. An example of this would be a defective vehicle. If any part of the vehicle is defective, the assembling manufacturer, the wholesaler, the dealer, and the manufacturer of the defective piece may all be held strictly liable for any injuries caused.
Although the categories mentioned above are all different from each other, the common factor is that they are all dangerous and require a high degree of responsibility from the defendant. Owning a wild animal would imply that the owner is aware that the animal is inherently dangerous and therefore assumes a heightened level of responsibility. Ultrahazardous activities are obviously dangerous and are generally conducted by professionals who learned how to do so as safely as possible.
Product manufacturers have set themselves up to earn the consumer’s trust. Therefore, a manufacturer who betrays that trust by creating an item that injures the consumer would be held liable.
Are There Any Defenses to Strict Liability Crimes?
Although available defenses will vary based on the specifics of each case, there are generally very few defenses to strict liability crimes. There are four defenses that could be available in regards to strict liability claims:
- Contributory Negligence: This assumes that the injured party contributed to their injuries in some way. They must have done so knowingly, and unreasonably subjected themselves to a risk of harm;
- Assumption of Risk: This defense may be brought based on the consent doctrine. An example of this would be if the plaintiff engaged in an ultrahazardous activity. In such a case, the injured plaintiff may not be able to recover in a strict liability claim for injuries sustained from the expected higher risks of the activity;
- Abuse or Misuse: This legal defense utilized in defective products lawsuits. Abuse or misuse suggests that the product was not used in a way it was safely intended to be used, and this use was not foreseeable by the manufacturer; and/or
- Comparative Fault: The comparative fault defense is based on the plaintiff’s own fault. When applying the comparative fault defense, the injured plaintiff’s award is reduced by the percentage they are deemed to be at fault for their own injuries.
Do I Need an Attorney for Strict Liability Crimes?
If you are accused of a strict liability crime, you should immediately consult with a skilled and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you understand your rights and responsibilities, as well as determine if any defenses are available to you based on the specifics of your case. Finally, an attorney can represent you in court as needed.