A tort is a civil (i.e., non-criminal) wrong that causes someone to suffer loss or harm. While criminal law aims to punish individuals who commit crimes, tort law aims to compensate individuals who suffer harm as a result of the actions of others.
What Is Strict Liability?
Strict liability is a legal doctrine that applies to certain tort cases (claims made to recover compensation after an injury). When strict liability rules apply, defendants can be held responsible for the consequences of their actions regardless of whether or not they behaved intentionally or negligently. Even a prudent person who exercised due care can still be held responsible for consequences when strict liability rules apply.
Strict liability cases are usually easier to prove than negligence because there isn’t any need to show what the defendant was thinking or how the defendant’s behavior compares to a reasonably prudent person. All that is necessary is to prove the tort occurred.
The law imposes strict liability in situations it considers to be inherently dangerous. Knowing they can be held responsible for said claims discourages reckless behavior and needless loss by forcing potential defendants to take every possible precaution before they act. It also has the beneficial effect of simplifying and thereby hastening court decisions in these cases.
What Is the Difference Between Negligence and Strict Liability?
In most tort cases, plaintiffs must prove negligence. They must demonstrate that the defendant owed them a duty of care and that the defendant breached that duty intentionally or by not exhibiting the same level of care a “reasonably prudent” person would have shown.
In strict liability claims, however, neither intent nor negligence must be proved. The plaintiff only must show that strict liability rules apply and that they were harmed by the defendant’s actions. For example, if a defendant engaged in ultrahazardous activities that created a significant risk of harm, the plaintiff could recover compensation by showing these activities occurred and caused harm.
Which Activities Are Treated With Strict Liability?
There are three principal activities for which people can be held strictly liable:
- Animal attacks (e.g., dog bite lawsuits or damage caused to property by a wild animal in the defendant’s care);
- Abnormally dangerous or Ultrahazardous activities; and
- Product liability.
Animal owners can be held liable if their pet bites someone. In most cases, these strict liability rules for animal bites apply to dog bite cases, but plaintiffs can sue whenever any type of pet causes harm. Wild animals kept as pets are particularly subject to strict liability treatment.
When strict liability rules apply in animal bite cases, typically, victims of a bite must prove the following:
- That they were not trespassing;
- That they did not provoke the animal; and
- A bite occurred, and it caused them harm.
The doctrine of strict liability only applies to some dog breeds. Which breeds are encompassed varies by jurisdiction, but common ones are:
- Alaskan Malamutes;
- American Pit Bull Terriers;
- American Staffordshire Terriers;
- Chow Chow;
- Doberman Pinscher;
- German Shepherds;
- Great Danes;
- Siberian Huskies;
- Staffordshire Bull Terriers; and
- Wolf hybrids.
What these breeds have in common is that they are believed to be more aggressive and more prone to biting than most dog breeds.
Abnormally Dangerous Conditions or Ultrahazardous Activities
When activities are extremely risky, there’s a foreseeable chance that someone will get hurt or property will be damaged. Someone who is injured by a high-risk activity can pursue a claim for compensation without proving negligence. For example, storing explosives in a residential house is very risky. A person who stores dynamite and it explodes or otherwise causes harm can be sued under strict liability rules.
In a claim arising from ultrahazardous activities, plaintiffs need to show:
- The defendant engaged in an inherently dangerous or ultrahazardous activity that carried a high risk of injury;
- The plaintiff sustained injuries as a result of the dangerous activity; and
- The defendant could have predicted that harm would occur but still proceeded.
US courts have historically considered the following activities as “ultrahazardous”:
- Storing flammable liquids in quantity in an urban area;
- Locating oil wells or refineries in populated communities;
- Crop dusting;
- Fumigation with cyanide gas; and
- Emission of noxious fumes by a manufacturing plant located in a settled area.
A defendant can try to escape liability by saying that the plaintiff knew of the dangers but voluntarily took the risk. An example would be skydiving – someone can’t use strict liability to sue the person who packed the parachute. They would have to prove it was packed recklessly or negligently.
Under strict product liability law, the manufacturer or seller of an unsafe product can be sued for damages for a defective product, even if the manufacturer or seller did nothing wrong.
Products liability claims arise when a defective product harms a person. When the doctrine of strict liability applies, a plaintiff need not show the product manufacturer acted negligently or engaged in any wrongdoing. Instead, a person hurt by a defective product can recover compensation by proving the following:
- The product had a defect that caused it to be unreasonably dangerous;
- The product caused harm when used as intended;
- The seller or manufacturer expected that consumers would use the product without any further modifications; and
- The product caused the plaintiff to suffer harm as a direct and foreseeable result of problems with the product.
Examples of Product Liability Claims
Many different things can go wrong with products, but most product liability claims surface as a result of one of the following types of problems:
- Manufacturing defects: This means a defect that appeared during production:
- Design defects: This means there was a problem with the product before manufacturing, making the design inherently dangerous; and
- Failure to warn: This happens when a manufacturer fails to provide adequate warnings, labels, or instructions about the dangers of the product.
Almost any type of product can have problems, potentially leading to a product liability lawsuit. Some examples of successful product liability claims include:
- A defective water heater that exploded;
- A car tire that came off because the manufacturer attached it improperly;
- Hip replacement devices that break apart inside of patients and cause serious health problems; and
- Drugs with unexpected side effects that manufacturers fail to warn about.
Defenses to Strict Product Liability Claims
Manufacturers and sellers have the right to defend themselves even in strict product liability claims. There are several possible defenses they could raise, including the following:
- The plaintiff used the product improperly and not in the way a reasonable consumer would use it;
- The plaintiff knew of the dangers of the product and assumed the risk by proceeding to use the product;
- The utility of the product outweighs the risk of harm it carries; and
- Another person or event was the actual direct cause of injury, such as a seller modifying the product prior to the sale.
If a victim is partly responsible for the harm they experienced, they may still be able to recover partial compensation if their state follows comparative negligence rules. Under these rules, a plaintiff can receive partial payment for damages equal to the percentage of fault attributed to the defendant. If a defendant was 60% to blame for $100,000 in losses, the defendant could be required to pay $60,000.
In other states, contributory negligence rules apply and prevent plaintiffs from recovering damages if they bear any responsibility for their own injuries. A product liability lawyer can help you to determine if these rules apply where you live.
When are Manufacturers Not Liable for Product-Related Injuries?
In some unique cases, a manufacturer may not be held fully liable for product injuries because of problems further down the chain of supply. For example, a food company that produces baby formula – manufactured, packaged, and shipped the formula safely from the warehouse.
But when the store stocked the formula, they put it in an environment where it was stored improperly and became infected with a toxin. The baby formula was now dangerous, perhaps even deadly.
If it is clear that the baby food manufacturer did not make any mistakes and that their product was safe to consume, and that the store’s error in stocking the product caused the illness, then the store will be more likely to be held liable and not the manufacturer.
Ultimately, manufacturers who exhaust all measures to ensure product safety and forewarn consumers of any dangers associated with their products may limit themselves from potential liability.
Do I Need a Lawyer Regarding a Strict Liability Tort?
If you have been involved in a strict liability claim, whether as the plaintiff or as the defendant, you should contact a local tort lawyer as soon as possible. Your lawyer will be able to advise you of your rights, assist you in gathering evidence, and will help build your case. Your case may be settled out of court, but in the event that your case goes to trial, your attorney will represent your best interests.
If you have been accused of committing a strict liability offense, you should obtain legal input. It is possible for tort liability cases to be discovered by the police, and you could be charged with a crime in addition to the civil charges. You should speak to a tort lawyer and to a criminal defense attorney to protect yourself.