Q1: An independent contractor constructed a reservoir and because of heavy rains it collapsed and damaged the coal fields beside it. The owner of coal fields which got damaged wants to approach the court. Explain the liability.
Facts of the case:
- Certain coal fields are owned by a person.
- A reservoir was constructed beside the coal fields by an independent contractor
- Due to heavy rains, the reservoir collapsed
- The water from the collapsed reservoir damaged the coal fields
Issues/Questions Involved in the case:
- Can the owner of coal fields which got damaged due to the reservoir water approach the court for recovery of loss incurred by him?
Decision/Judgement arrived at in the case:
- Yes, the owner of coal fields which got damaged due to the reservoir water can approach the court for recovery of loss incurred by him from the owner of the reservoir via Strict Liability rule.
Reasons/Principles Applied to arrive at the Decision:
Meaning of Strict Liability:
‘Rule of Strict Liability’ in Torts mean liability without fault, that is to say, without intention or negligence on the part of defendant. This liability is also famously called as liability under Rylands v. Fletcher of 1868 [1868 LR 3 HL 330]. This rule applies to ‘anything likely to do mischief if it escapes’ such as gas, electricity, vibration, explosives, engines, noxious fumes and water in large quantity.
Essential for application of ‘rule of Strict liability’:
- Some dangerous thing brought or collected by a person on his land
There should be a dangerous thing brought on land which is likely to escape and cause damage
- Escape of the dangerous thing
The power escape of the dangerous thing must be inherent. The term escape means ‘escape from a place which is under defendant’s occupation or control’.
- Non-natural use of land
Collection of dangerous things in a big quantity, which causes damage to the other if it escapes from that place, is considered to be non-natural us of land.
This liability arises when there is a non-natural use of land happening. In such a case, the defendant is held liable even for accidental harm and the plaintiff need not prove negligence or absence of care on the part of defendant.
Acts done by an independent contractor:
Generally, an employer us not liable for the wrongful acts done by an independent contractor. But it is no defence to the application of this rule that the act causing damage had been done by an independent contractor. It is the employer’s duty to keep such dangerous substances in a proper and safe way so that is does not cause injury to others.
- Plaintiff’s default: It is a good defence to this rule where the damage caused by the escape is due to the plaintiff’s own default.
- Act of God: This defence may be taken when the escape of the dangerous thing has been caused due to the operation of natural forces, and which cannot be avoided in spite of the reasonable case, and also in unforeseen circumstances.
- Natural use of land: Where it is natural use of land as it is good defence, the liability cannot arise except when it is proved that the land is used for non-natural use. Also keeping dangerous things for domestic purpose or in a small quantity is a natural use of land.
- Plaintiff’s consent: The maxim ‘volenti non fit injuria’ meaning where there is a voluntary consent for a thing, liability does not arise, for any loss arising after giving such consent. When a person consents for bringing the dangerous is thing to a place from which it may cause him injury, if it escapes, has no right of action or claim, unless he can prove negligence.
- Act of Third party: The defendant will not be held liable under the rule where a stranger caused some harm.
- Statutory Authority: It is a good defence where liability does not arise as the damage has been caused due to the implementation of mandate of Statutory Authority.
Supporting Case laws/precedents/references:
- Rylands v. Fletcher [1868 LR 3 HL 330]
The plaintiff was the occupier of certain coal mines. The defendant were the owners and occupiers of a mill adjoining the plaintiff’s land. The defendants wished to construct a reservoir. They employed a competent engineer and contractor to do so. There were some old passages of disuse in the mines of the defendant’s land. The contractors failed to observe and they didn’t block them. When the water was filled in the reservoir, the water broke through the shaft and filtered through to the disused mine shafts and then spread to a working mine owned by the claimant causing extensive damage to the plaintiff’s mines. The defendants didn’t know because it was constructed by an independent contractor. In this case, the Court held the defendants liable, though there was no negligence on their part. It was held that for liability to arise under the ‘rule of Strict Liability’, no need of proving any negligence on the part of defendant.
- Nichols v. Marsland [(1876) 2 Ex D 1]
The defendant diverted a natural stream on his land to create ornamental lakes. Exceptionally heavy rain caused the artificial lakes and waterways to be flooded and damaged adjoining land. The defendant was held not liable under Rylands v Fletcher as the cause of the flood was an act of God.
- Green v. Chejsea Waterworks Company [(1894) 70 LT 547]
The defendant company had a statutory duty to maintain continuous supply of water. Plaintiff’s premises were flooded with water due to burst of a main pipe belonging to the company. In this case, it was held that the company was not liability as the company was engaged in performing a statutory duty and there is no negligence on the part of plaintiff too.
Position in India:
The rule laid down in Rylands v. Fletcher of strict liability is also applied in India with slight variations. Liability without fault has been recognized in case of Motor Vehicle accidents. However, the motor vehicle’s owners get their vehicles insured to protect themselves from the situation after accidents. It is called as Third-Party Insurance and is mandated by the law.
Conclusion to the Problem:
In view of the above discussion, the owner of the coal fields can approach Court to recover the losses he incurred due to the strict liability arising on the independent contractor and the owner of the land on which the reservoir was constructed.
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