What is a strict liability cause of action?

Strict liability is a legal doctrine that makes a person or company responsible for their actions or products which cause damages regardless of any negligence or fault on their part. A plaintiff filing a personal injury lawsuit under a strict liability law does not need to show intentional or negligent conduct, only that the defendant's action triggered strict liability and that the plaintiff suffered a harm. Whether or not a tort action is considered strict liability and what damages are appropriate will depend on your state law, so consult an experienced personal injury attorney prior to filing a strict liability tort.

When Strict Liability Applies

Strict liability often applies when people engage in inherently dangerous activities. There are many factors a court will use to determine whether or not an activity is inherently dangerous. Some activities, such as transportation or use of heavy explosives or dangerous chemicals, are inherently dangerous in any circumstance. Other activities may be dangerous, but not inherently dangerous enough to trigger strict liability. For those activities the law will look at the possible level of harm the activity could cause, whether or not such an activity is common or expected in the place it is being conducted, and whether or not the activity is necessary. For example, a construction company using some sort of blasting technique on a job may not be inherently dangerous in an unpopulated area if adequate safety precautions are met, but can be inherently dangerous if done in a crowded city. If a construction company is conducting blasting activities in a crowded city, and if the blasting causes harm to someone the company can be liable for any personal injuries under a strict liability tort theory. It does not matter if the blasting was properly monitored in order to ensure the safest possible technique because if an activity is inherently dangerous considering the place and time it is conducted and a plaintiff suffers an injury as a result of that conduct, then a strict liability action negates any defense. Inherently dangerous activities can include acts by the defendant, transportation of various materials or explosives, or keeping dangerous animals that can cause harm to others.

Strict liability also may apply in the case of certain manufactured products. In strict product liability, anyone who is involved in the manufacture or sale of the product can be held responsible if it was defective and someone was injured. There is no need to prove negligence in a product liability claim. A plaintiff must show that they did not tamper with or misuse the product, but that the product was manufactured and sold in a condition that the ordinary and expected use of it resulted in harm to them.

The theory of strict liability also comes up occasionally in criminal and traffic cases. The same general principles apply: an act plus a harm, regardless of intent, equals liability. Speeding is a good example of a strict liability offense. Statutes allow for drivers to be ticketed and punished for the strict liability offense of speeding, even when the driver was merely reckless about monitoring his own speed. 

Elements of Strict Liability

A plaintiff in a civil cause of action must generally show three things to establish a strict liability offense. The first is that a defendant (person or company) did something that was inherently dangerous and unreasonable under the circumstances. The plaintiff must then show that the inherently dangerous act caused something bad to happen to the plaintiff. Finally, the plaintiff must show they actually suffered harm as a result of their injury. If a plaintiff cannot show an actual harm, such as a physical injury, they may not be able to make their strict liability claim.

Once a plaintiff proves a strict liability personal injury claim, a defendant is pretty much on the hook for the damages, regardless of their disclaimers. Disclaimers and waivers of liability for products are often invalidated by courts as against public policy (courts should not condone the manufacture and distribution of defective products) and warranties are typically limited so that manufacturers and retailers are held responsible for personal injuries caused by the use of the product.

Getting Legal Help

Although strict liability may seem like a windfall for a plaintiff, a finding of strict liability can actually hinder a plaintiff’s recovery. Without showing intentional or willful conduct, many states only award damages to adequately compensate the plaintiff for their injury, and do not authorize the award of incidental or punitive damages. Before pursuing a strict liability claim or tort, review the certain types of remedies available in your jurisdiction to see which theory best fits the objectives of your lawsuit. A personal injury lawyer can also help walk you through the various requirements and remedies for a strict liability tort in your jurisdiction.