Strict Liability: What Is It and When Does it Apply?

Strict LiabilityIn previous articles, we talked generally about negligence and the types of claims associated with receiving compensation for injury or wrongful death. Conversely to claims that require proving negligence, strict liability can be described as being held legally responsible for an injury without any proof of actual negligence, carelessness, or fault being required. In the simplest terms, strict liability is liability without fault.

Where Do We See Strict Liability?

Most frequently, you see strict liability applied to the area of products liability (within torts), whereby the party who profited from the sale or distribution of the product is automatically required to bear the financial burden (if there should be a product defect).

The theory behind assigning this automatic level of responsibility is based on fairness; those who profited from the product are in a better position to ensure against defects than the innocent members) of the public who purchased and used the defective product.

Courts usually look at certain factors in the area of products liability, such as whether there something wrong with the product, whether the purchaser got injured, whether the product caused the injury, and what the extent of the injury is. The plaintiff must demonstrate that the product was manufactured and sold in a condition that the ordinary and expected use of it harmed them. If the manufacturer included a waiver of liability, this will often be held as antithetical to public policy and invalidated.

There are 3 main theories of products liability law – defective manufacture, defective design, and failure to warn of risks.  Defective manufacture can occur during production, when improper materials or activities created the defect. You will sometimes see this being addressed when a company issues a recall on a certain product. Defective design means exactly what it sounds like: the defect is in the design of the product. One example of this might be a car company that is aware of a flaw in the design of a car but chooses to ignore it in order to save money. Finally, failure to warn describes the famous lawsuit brought years ago for serious burns related to coffee that was too hot. The lesson learned from this case: companies need to place warnings on potentially hazardous products.

Outside of products liability (in torts), strict liability can be the standard in the areas of criminal and corporate law as well. For example, strict liability is applied to knowing the laws; it is not an acceptable defense to claim that you violated the law because you were unaware of what was and was not legal. Possessing certain dangerous property (wild, dangerous animals, illegal weapons, heavy explosives, etc.) or engaging in particularly dangerous behaviors that the legislature deems governed by strict liability (such as speeding or engaging in statutory rape) is held to the strict liability standard. A certain intent or mental state is irrelevant in these instances; if it is proven that the dangerous act occurred, the plaintiff suffered harm, and the defendant is responsible, it is irrelevant whether the defendant was acting negligently.

Probably one of the most famous instances of strict liability with respect to wild animals involved the tiger escaping from its enclosure in the San Francisco Zoo on Christmas Day in 2007 and mauling one man two death, while leaving two others seriously injured. However, proving ownership of a wild animal can be more difficult than it initially seems, particularly for wild animals that roam large tracts of land.

In the instance of abnormally dangerous acts, a court will typically consider to what extent harm can result from the activity, how unusual it is, whether the value to the community outweighs the risks involved, and various other factors.

Is There Any Defense to Strict Liability?

A defendant could typically argue that the incident took place not because of any particular fault by the defendant. For example, in the instance of products liability, defendant might argue that the incident took place because the plaintiff was using the product incorrectly (not because it was defective).

We’ve Only Just Begun

The purpose of imposing this automatic level of liability is to discourage certain reckless, dangerous behavior by members of the public. By doing so, the theory is that members of the public are encouraged to take certain precautions in certain scenarios, particularly if they are especially dangerous. More generally, strict liability was necessary to protect consumers as a matter of public policy and should act as an incentive to make sure that products and behavior are safe.

If you suspect that you have been injured by an activity covered by strict liability, you should talk to an attorney who is experienced in this field.  Whether your case is an individual or class action claim, you may be entitled to compensation for your injuries.