Strict Liability Tort Explained
Liability is a common enough legal concept, easy to understand even if you don’t have a law degree. Put simply, we need laws in place to help us (and courts) fairly assign responsibility when someone suffers an injury, loss, or other wrong at the hands of another person or entity.
So what puts the “strict” in strict liability? First, it helps to understand a little about tort law.
What is a tort?
A tort is a civil wrong that causes loss or harm to the claimant. This results in legal liability for the person who committed the wrongful act.
Civil wrongs - which are resolved through private civil remedies, such as monetary damages - can be contrasted with criminal wrongs - resolved through criminal courts, often punitively - and finally with contractual wrongs - which are also resolved through civil remedies but in which obligation is determined by the contract parties, rather than by the state (as in civil and criminal cases).
Strict liability is one form of liability within tort law. A strict liability tort is a tort in which one party is found strictly liable for harm to another party.
Now let’s talk about that “strict” in strict liability.
What is strict liability?
The simplest definition of strict liability is liability without fault. In other words, it’s when one party is found liable for harm to another regardless of their intention (or lack thereof) to cause harm.
One useful way to think about strict liability is through the concept of intent vs. impact. In a strict liability tort, the impact of a party’s actions - the resulting injury, damage, or other harm - outweighs their intent, making them legally liable even if they did not intend to cause harm.
There are three main categories of strict liability:
- Product liability: Some of the most common strict liability torts are product liability cases. In Oregon, strict liability can be applied to manufacturers, distributors, sellers, and lessors of dangerous products that cause injury, death, or property damage. In general, claimants only need to prove that there was a defect, that it made the product unreasonably dangerous, and that the defect caused harm - even if the provider otherwise took proper care.
- Animal bites & exotic animals: In the eyes of the law, an animal does not have a conscience, so its owner can be found strictly liable for any injury, death, or property damage it causes by attacking or escaping. Details vary by state and often distinguish between domesticated and non-domesticated or “wild” animals. In Oregon, for example, the owner of an exotic animal (i.e. something not normally domesticated) is subject to strict liability.
In some cases, what’s known as the “one free bite” rule kicks in. If your dog bites a neighbor’s child one time, you as the owner would be subject to ordinary negligence (more on that below). However, if your dog continues to attack others, you would be subject to strict liability, because - even though it is not your intention that your dog attacks others - it would be reasonable to assume that you are aware that your dog is a dangerous animal.
- Abnormally dangerous conditions or ultrahazardous activity: Like in the dog bite example above, strict liability often kicks in with activities or conditions that are more dangerous than can be reasonably expected. A common example is storing explosives in a suburban home. If, through no fault of the homeowner, lightning strikes and causes the explosives to detonate and cause damage, injury, or death to neighbors, the owner of the explosives is subject to strict liability. Even though he or she did not intend the outcome, he or she was responsible for creating abnormally dangerous conditions.
How does strict liability differ from other kinds of torts?
Strict liability can primarily be contrasted with intentional torts and negligence, which itself comes in several forms.
Unlike strict liability, in which intent does not matter, intentional torts involve intentional acts of harm. A simple example is assault or battery - intentionally injuring another person through violence.
Negligence, the most common form of tort, applies when the tortfeasor fails to act in the same way another reasonable person would act under similar circumstances, and that failure results in harm to another.
Let’s take a look at a final example to put this in perspective. Let’s say a bouncer at a club wants to get rid of a rowdy patron. The bouncer moves the altercation outside and then shoves the patron into the street, where the patron is hit by a passing car, causing grave personal injury.
If it can be proven that the bouncer waited for a passing car to get close enough before shoving the patron, he could be found intentionally liable for the injuries caused by the car, by knowingly and intentionally throwing the patron in the car’s path.
If it can be proven that the car accident was unintentional, however, the bouncer could be subject to negligence - acting unreasonably in comparison to another bouncer who may have behaved more safely - or to strict liability - acting in an unreasonably dangerous manner, knowing that shoving a patron into the street could result in the patron being hit by a car.
And what about the driver of the car? If the driver was following the rules of the road - i.e., not behaving in an unreasonably dangerous manner by, for example, texting or speeding - it would be difficult to pin negligence, intentional liability, or strict liability on them.
To learn more about the different types of torts, read our blog on the subject.
Call with Questions
The experienced personal injury attorneys at Nelson MacNeil Rayfield have seen all kinds of strict liability cases. If you have questions about loss, injury, or damage caused by any of the types of activities mentioned above, don’t hesitate to give us a call.