Strict Liability: Tort Claims, Explanations and Examples

Reviewed By Adam Ramirez, J.D.

Editor

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Strict liability is a fundamental concept in tort law, which deals with civil wrongs and the resulting injuries or damages. In most tort cases, a defendant is only liable for a plaintiff's damages if they were negligent, reckless or intended to harm someone. In strict liability tort cases, a person or entity can be liable for damages to others even if they took all possible precautions to prevent harm.

What Is Strict Liability? Tort Law and the Plaintiff's Burden of Proof

In most tort cases, the plaintiff must prove a defendant had a duty under the law to act a certain way and breached that duty either intentionally or negligently. Strict liability removes the burden on a plaintiff to prove any fault or wrongdoing. A plaintiff only needs to show they were harmed by the defendant's action, inaction or product and provide evidence of their damages.

Strict liability applies in very limited situations where public policy demands that, regardless of their intent, certain parties should bear the responsibility for any harm that results from their actions. The primary rationale is to protect the public and encourage safer practices by holding those engaged in potentially hazardous activities or products accountable for any harm they cause.

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Understanding What Is Strict Liability in Tort Law

Generally, civil laws don't hold individuals liable for harm unless they have failed to take reasonable steps to prevent injury to others. In cases where strict liability applies, a defendant can be held liable even if they took every possible measure to prevent harm to others.

The principle of strict liability aims to promote safer practices and protect the public. It applies to some claims because of historical precedent (past legal rulings that guide modern court decisions). In other cases, strict liability is established by law. Cases where strict liability often applies include those involving:

  • Pets. Many jurisdictions have passed laws that hold owners strictly liable for injuries caused by their dogs or other domestic pets. If a dog attacks someone, its owner is responsible for all damages, regardless of whether the dog has a history of aggression or whether the owner took precautions to prevent the bite.
  • Hazardous Materials. Strict liability applies to those who handle or store dangerous materials like chemicals, toxins and other substances that pose significant risks to people and the environment. Companies handling such materials are liable for any harm resulting from leaks, spills or other incidents, regardless of the precautions they have taken.
  • Explosives. The use, storage and transportation of explosives are inherently dangerous activities subject to strict liability. Entities involved in such activities are responsible for any resulting damages, injuries or fatalities, regardless of the precautions taken to ensure safety.
  • Highly Regulated Industries. Some industries, including pharmaceuticals and aviation, are subject to strict liability due to the significant risks associated with their products and services. These industries are heavily regulated to protect public safety, and strict liability ensures that companies are accountable for any harm caused by their operations or products.
  • Product Liability. Strict liability is a common doctrine in product liability cases. Manufacturers, distributors and retailers can be held strictly liable for defective products that cause harm to consumers, including design defects, manufacturing defects and failure to warn consumers about potential dangers.

Strict Liability Tort Examples

Although strict liability doesn't apply in many tort claims, numerous common situations illustrate its application. Examples include:

  • A chemical manufacturing company that stores toxic substances may be held strictly liable if those chemicals leak and contaminate the local water supply. The company’s liability exists even if it had stringent safety measures in place, and it will likely face a class action lawsuit on behalf of the community.
  • A construction company using dynamite for demolition purposes would be strictly liable if an explosion damages nearby properties or injures bystanders. The high risk associated with explosives justifies the imposition of strict liability.
  • Drug manufacturers may be held strictly liable if their product causes adverse effects or injuries, even if the company conducted thorough testing and complied with all regulatory requirements. (The Elmiron lawsuits are examples of this policy in action.) Holding manufacturers strictly liable for the safety of their products helps ensure they take thorough, effective safety precautions.
  • A car manufacturer may be strictly liable if a defect in the vehicle’s braking system leads to an accident, injuring the driver and passengers. The manufacturer’s liability exists regardless of whether they were negligent in the design or production process.

Strict liability in tort law helps ensure that individuals and entities engaged in potentially dangerous activities or producing hazardous products are held to a higher standard of accountability under the law. Strict liability simplifies the legal process for injured parties and promotes a higher standard of safety and responsibility by removing the need to prove negligence or intent.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • In most criminal cases, the prosecution must prove a person acted intentionally, knowingly or recklessly. However, some crimes don't require proof of a person's intent or mental state, such as possession of illegal substances, stolen goods or contraband or statutory rape. These are considered "strict liability" crimes.

  • Strict liability does not mean a plaintiff automatically wins. There are many defenses to strict liability, depending on the type of claim. A defendant can provide evidence in its defense once the plaintiff rests their case.

  • In a lawsuit based on ordinary negligence (the standard that applies to most civil claims for personal injuries), the plaintiff contends that the defendant's negligence or recklessness caused the plaintiff's injuries. The plaintiff must prove defendant's action or inaction violated their duty under the law. In a strict liability lawsuit, this is not necessary. To meet their burden of proof, a plaintiff only needs to show the defendant caused their injuries.

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