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Strict liability is also referred to as absolute liability. Strict liability can be simply defined as a crime to which the defendant need not have the necessary ‘mens rea’. Mens rea is a latin word which refers to a guilty mind.
In instances where a defendant is known to have intentionally contravened a law, then the said defendant is considered to have had a guilty mind prior and during the commission of the criminal act. However, there are crimes where a defendant cannot be held directly responsible for the commission of a crime and as such had no intention of the commission of a said crime. Both criminal and tort law hold such a defendant liable to the affected plaintiff in spite of being personally faultless. In a strict liability lawsuit, a court of law will only require a plaintiff to present before it proof as to causation and damages.
Actions that lead to a strict liability lawsuit
Strict liability is essentially meant to mitigate against activities that can present unreasonably dangerous outcomes despite instituting realistic precautions having been taken. As much as such activities ma be considered as necessary in a social sense, those charged with committing them are considered as being strictly liable for damages arising therein. Product liability lawsuits are an example of strict liability lawsuits and involve injuries resulting from harm resulting from the consumption of manufactured products.
Litigation in the US was impacted greatly in the 1960’s by strict liability lawsuits as was the case in Greenman v. Yuba Power Products . Mr. William Greenman the plaintiff in this lawsuit suffered serious head injuries after a woodworking tool his wife had purchased for him from the defendant (Yuba power Products). The plaintiff claimed to have carefully studied the manufacturer’s brochure on the said product before using it. However, after having used it successfully on a number of occasions, the power tool happened to hurl a wooden piece he was working on, seriously injuring his head. After more than 10 months had elapsed after the incident, the plaintiff through a written notice informed both the manufacturer and retailer for breach of warranty. He then filed a formal complaint stating negligence and breach of warranty.
The plaintiff provided sufficient evidence supporting the fact that injuries sustained were due to defective product design and production. The defendant on the other hand provided before the court that the plaintiff failed to submit a written notice on the breach of warranty in a time frame that could be deemed as reasonable. The American Civil Code clearly provides that a buyer is obligated to inform the seller and or manufacturer of a breach of warranty in a reasonable timeframe and failure to adhere to this precludes the seller of any liability.
The court observed that strict liability could be imposed on this case as the evidence presented a number of facts. Firstly, that the manufacturer did indeed lace the said power tool in the market. Secondly, the manufacturer as well aware the product in question was to be sold without a proper inspection for possible defects. Thirdly, the product in question proved to be defective and lastly that the power tool did indeed cause the plaintiff serious injury. It is important to point out that in establishing strict liability; the plaintiff had to present sufficient evidence showing that the power tool injured him while he was using it in the prescribed manner such that the product had to be defective to cause injury. This case underscored the fact that strict liability essentially serves to ensure consumer protection over the protection of the manufacturer.
Contrary to a true crime, when a crime is considered by a court of law to be regulatory in nature, the mens rea presumption introduces the aspect of strict liability. However, in the instance that a true crime is evident, then means rea as a presumption prevails. An example of a regulatory offense includes one that can be considered as contravening prescribed health and safety regulations such as environmental pollution or the retailing of meat products unfit for human consumption.
In the case of Alphacell Ltd v Woodward , the owner to the appellant company was convicted of dumping polluted substances into nearby rivers which contravened the Rivers Act of 1951 aimed at stemming pollution of natural resources. The offence in the crime in question resulted from a disconnection in the factory’s underground sewer pipe which got disconnected as a result of a blockage inside the said underground pipe. The owner of Alphacel Ltd., was however oblivious of the pollution occurring in the neighboring river thus the court decided that he was not liable for negligence.
As this was a matter of public concern, the court decided that the case in question was that of strict liability. This precipitated the court to dismiss the factory owner’s appeal to an earlier judgment on the basis of strict liability and uphold the decision made in an earlier court judgment.
Understandably, there are very few instances in which a defendant can have some defense in a strict liability lawsuit. One of the most appropriate strategies that a defendant can pursue is to argue to be held liable for negligence rather than for strict liability. This can be used a defense against a strict liability case as the negligence is far much more difficult to conclusively prove against as compared to a strict liability lawsuit. The second defense could be for the defendant to attempt to prove that neither damage nor causation was suffered by the plaintiff. Lastly, a manufacturer can present his or her defense in a strict liability case by offering sufficient proof that the defendant used a product inappropriately and not in accordance with the instruction manual.
Strict liability has been known to promote health and safety standards where the general public is in a vulnerable state such that those in positions of social responsibility proactively take necessary precautions to ensure public safety and health. Strict liability also serves to ensure that criminals do not evade liability by simply falsifying their state of mind during the commission of the crime. Strict liability also plays an important role in ensuring the general population takes care of each other as it serves as a strong deterrent to crime. Strict liability cases are handled administratively and thus there is no need for a court process relieving courts of heavy workload.
Christian von Bar, C. (2009). Non-contractual Liability Arising Out of Damage Caused to Another: (PEL Liab. Dam.). Munich: sellier. european law publ.
Singer,R. G. & La Fond, J. Q. (2010). Criminal law. New York: Aspen Publishers.
Statsky, W. (2011). Essentials of Torts. London: Cengage Learning.