Tort Law: Strict Liability and Abnormally Dangerous Activities




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Strict Liability in Tort Law

It is axiomatic that, in most cases, some level of fault is necessary for tort liability to attach. In the case of negligence causes of action, for example, plaintiffs must prove that defendants breached their duties to succeed.[1] An exception applies in cases of “strict liability torts.” Strict liability means liability without fault. Where applicable, the defendant is liable for harm that his actions caused even though there may have been no misconduct at all by the defendant.

Strict liability applies in three categories of cases:

1.    Where the defendant kept wild animals that escaped their confinement and caused damage.

2.    Where the defendant engaged in abnormally dangerous activities, which caused damage.

3.    Certain product liability actions.

Wild Animals

Because wild animals can be vicious and unpredictable, keeping them is considered an inherently dangerous activity. By doing so, the keeper implicitly takes upon himself the risk of liability should the animals cause injuries. A wild animal is an animal that belongs to a category of animals that have not been domesticated and that are likely to cause personal injury if not restrained.[2]  Snakes, lions and bears are classic examples of wild animals. If a person harbors a wild animal, even legally, then liability for injuries inflicted by the animal is absolute.[3]  This is so even if the owner had no prior knowledge of the animal's propensity to cause harm and even if the owner has exercised the utmost care in preventing harm.[4]   

An exception to the doctrine of absolute liability is sometimes recognized where wild animals are kept for government sanctioned education and entertainment purposes.[5]  In those cases, some jurisdictions apply the rules of ordinary negligence.[6] 

            Where the animals in question are of a species that can be domesticated, ordinary negligence rules apply unless the owner knew or should have known that the animal has dangerous or vicious propensities. For example, if a domesticated dog engages in attacks on people, while the initial attacks might be subject to ordinary negligence analyses, later attacks will subject the owner to strict liability because the owner should have known that this particular animal is dangerous. This rule is sometimes known as the “one-free-bite rule” on the idea that the first bite is not subject to strict liability. This is a bit of a misnomer since even the first bite can subject the owner to liability if the owner was negligent; but it serves, nevertheless, to illustrate the rule.[7]

For example, in a 1969 case, the city of Alexandria, Louisiana, was held liable in negligence for injuries sustained by a nine-year-old boy while he attempted to feed a chimpanzee in a city-owned zoo.[8] Though strict liability was not applied (based on the education and entertainment exception discussed above), the record indicated that the animal had previously bitten off a finger of an employee and that the city was negligent in failing to provide wire mesh on the sides of the cage to restrain the public from approaching the cage.[9] Therefore, the city could be liable either on the basis of negligence or on the basis of strict liability because they had reason to know this animal had dangerous propensities.

Abnormally Dangerous Activities

Strict liability is typically applied in cases in which the defendant’s activity was “ultrahazardous” or “abnormally dangerous.” These terms are often used interchangeably or in the alternative, though the term “ultrahazardous” was more common in older cases, while “abnormally dangerous” is the standard more frequently used today.[10] 

An activity is abnormally dangerous if it:

(1)  necessarily involves a risk of serious harm to the person, land, or property of another which cannot be eliminated by the exercise of the utmost care; and

(2)  is not a matter of common usage.[11]

While the activity need not be rare, abnormally dangerous activities, by definition, are not commonly carried out by a majority of people on a regular basis.[12]  That is why, for example, driving a car would never be considered an abnormally dangerous activity. Although driving a car may be dangerous, it’s not “abnormal” for most people and therefore cannot be considered abnormally dangerous.   

 Though not all states apply strict liability to the same extent, there are some activities that tend to be universally labeled as abnormally dangerous.  For example, dynamite blasting tends to be universally recognized as abnormally dangerous.  The common view is that the extent and severity of any given blast is impossible to predict.[13]  Blasting involves a substantial risk of harm regardless of the degree of care exercised.  Therefore, the person engaged in that activity assumes full responsibility for its consequences. 

Crop dusting, fumigating, other mass use of poisons, storing gasoline, burning fields, storing explosives and digging canals are other examples of activities that are considered abnormally dangerous and thus subject to strict liability.[14] 

It should be noted that the damages need not necessarily include only damages normally anticipated and associated with the dangerous activity. Damages also need not be limited to physical injury. They can include emotional pain and even loss of business profits.  For example, a New York dentist successfully sued for damages caused by six months of blasting near his dental practice.[15]  The prolonged blasting caused him tension and anxiety.  The blasting also caused him to lose two business contracts.  The dentist successfully sued for his physical and emotional anguish as well as the economic loss to his practice.   

Product Liability

            While product liability is the subject of other presentations, it should be noted in this context that manufacturers or sellers can be strictly liable for damages caused by products that they place into the stream of commerce. There are two basic categories to which these apply:

1.    Manufacturing Defects. Manufacturers are typically liable when a mistake in the manufacturing process causes an injury. Mistakes in the factory that cause screws to end up in soda cans, mistakes on the assembly line that cause cars to come off the line with defective brakes and rancid food that causes food poisoning are all examples of such defects. The manufacturer or retailer can be held liable even in the absence of any showing of fault or negligence.[16]

2.    Breach of Warranty. Where the manufacturer or seller of a product guarantees (explicitly or implicitly) that a product will behave in a certain manner, and it fails to do so, the manufacturer or seller will be held strictly liable for any resulting injuries, regardless of any fault or lack thereof.[17]

While negligence or intentional wrongful conduct is generally necessary for liability to attach, in these three categories of cases, no-fault liability may apply. Like many legal exceptions, determining when strict liability applies often comes down to case-by-case analysis. But the general principles laid out in this presentation should be a sufficient starting point to determine when liability can apply even absent a showing of fault on the part of the defendant. 



 Footnotes


[1] 74 Am. Jur. 2d Torts § 7.

[2] Restatement Third, Torts: Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm § 22(b).

[3] 4 Am. Jur. 2d Animals § 62.

[4] Id.; see also, Poznanski ex rel. Poznanski v. Horvath, 788 N.E.2d 1255 (Ind. 2003); Tipton v. Town of Tabor, SD 96, 567 N.W.2d 351 (S.D. 1997).

[5] Guzzi v. New York Zoological Soc., 192 A.D. 263, 182 N.Y.S. 257 (1st Dep't 1920), aff'd, 233 N.Y. 511, 135 N.E. 897 (1922).

[6] 4 Am. Jur. 2d Animals § 62. 

[8] Brown v. City of Alexandria, 225 So. 2d 157 (La. Ct. App. 3d Cir. 1969).

[9] Id.

[10] Green v. Ensign-Bickford Co., 25 Conn. App. 479, 595 A.2d 1383 (1991); In re Chicago Flood Litigation, 176 Ill. 2d 179, 223 Ill. Dec. 532, 680 N.E.2d 265 (1997);

[11] 57A Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 386; see also Luthringer v. Moore, 31 Cal. 2d 489, 190 P.2d 1 (1948). 

[12] Id.   

[13] 31A Am. Jur. 2d Explosions and Explosives § 77. 

[14] 57A Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 384;

[15] Halpert v. Ingram & Greene, Inc., 70 Misc. 2d 872, 333 N.Y.S.2d 913 (N.Y. City Civ. Ct. 1972).

[16] See Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc., 59 Cal. 2d 57, 377 P.2d 897 (Cal. 1963)

[17] See Denny v. Ford Motor Co., 662 N.E.2d 730, 731 (N.Y. 1995).