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Liability that doesn’t depend on actual negligence or intent to harm
The basis for most personal injury lawsuits is negligence. In a negligence lawsuit, the plaintiff (the person suing) must prove that the defendant (the person being sued) was at “fault” for the plaintiff’s injuries. But are there any other basis for personal injury claims?
The short answer is yes.
Strict liability is another popular basis for personal injury claims. However, strict liability isn’t available in every situation. Let’s take a closer look at strict liability, when it applies, how it’s established, and the common defenses to strict liability claims.
What is strict liability?
Strict liability is a legal doctrine that holds a party responsible for their actions or products without the plaintiff having to prove fault or intent.
In other words, the law isn’t concerned with the intention or mental state of the person committing the action or selling the product. All that matters is that the action occurred and the plaintiff was injured. The fact that the event happened means someone can be held liable.
What types of cases are strict liability claims?
Strict liability doesn’t apply to every case. For instance, it doesn’t apply to a car accident. When a car accident occurs, the plaintiff will have to establish negligence by proving that the defendant was at fault for the accident.
Strict liability applies to three common types of civil cases:
- those involving animals
- those involving abnormally dangerous activities
- those involving defective products
Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
Strict liability cases involving animals
There are two “animal cases” where strict liability might come into play.
The first concerns wild animals. Any person that keeps wild animals is strictly liable for any damage the wild animal causes.
For example, if Bill keeps a Siberian tiger on his property and the tiger escapes and attacks Lucy while she’s jogging along the road, Bill will be strictly liable for Lucy’s injuries. Because Bill is strictly liable, Lucy doesn’t need to prove that the Bill was at fault for letting the tiger escape (by, for example, failing to construct or maintain a fence). Nor does Lucy need to prove that Bill was aware of the tiger’s dangerous nature. Lucy only needs to show that Bill owned (or had control over) the tiger and the tiger caused her injury.
So what animals are considered “wild”?
Wild animals are animals that haven’t been traditionally domesticated and are likely, if unrestrained, to cause personal injury. Most states don’t consider dogs or livestock to be wild animals.
The second “animal case” where strict liability might come into play concerns dog bites. In some states, strict liability is imposed for dog bites. This means that the dog owner is liable for the injuries caused by their dog regardless of whether the dog was known to be dangerous and regardless of how the dog came to bite the injured person.
Abnormally dangerous activities
Any person who carries on an abnormally dangerous activity is subject to strict liability for physical harm resulting from the activity.
So what is an abnormally dangerous activity?
An activity is abnormally dangerous if:
- The activity creates a foreseeable and significant risk of physical harm even when reasonable care is exercised by everyone involved, and
- The activity is not one of common usage.
States don’t always agree on what constitutes an “abnormally dangerous activity.” A classic example is fireworks. Some states have held that fireworks constitute an abnormally dangerous activity, while others have held the opposite.
If you’re injured by a product, you might be able to file a lawsuit to recover damages for your injuries. This type of lawsuit is called a product liability lawsuit.
There are three broad categories of product liability claims:
- Manufacturing defect claims
- Design defect claims
- Inadequate warning or instruction claims
A product liability claim can be brought under a theory of negligence or strict liability. In a product liability case based on strict liability, the plaintiff only needs to show that:
- A product was sold in an “unreasonably dangerous” condition,
- The unreasonably dangerous condition existed at the time the product left the defendant’s control, and
- The dangerous condition was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.
Defenses to strict liability
To establish strict liability, the plaintiff needs to prove that:
- The defendant engaged in the abnormally dangerous activity or had control over the animal or product, and
- The abnormally dangerous activity, animal, or product caused the plaintiff’s injury.
Therefore, the two most common defenses to a strict liability claim are that the defendant didn’t engage in the abnormally dangerous activity or didn’t have control over the animal or product, and that something else (such as a third party) caused the plaintiff’s injury.
Another common defense to strict liability is called “assumption of the risk.” The gist of this defense is that the plaintiff knew and appreciate the risk created by a particular condition and voluntarily assumed that risk anyway.
For example, John let’s say decides to set off explosives in his backyard. He calls his friend Sam and asks if Sam wants to come watch. Sam happily agrees and arrives at John’s house with a folding chair and a bag of popcorn. Sam sits in the chair and watches John set off explosives and is injured by shrapnel. While John’s activity is undoubtedly dangerous, he may argue that Sam assumed the risk of any harm.
Finally, all states have a statute of limitations that requires an action to be brought within a specific period of time after the victim discovered (or should have discovered) their injuries. If the plaintiff fails to do so, their case can be dismissed. The exact statute of limitations varies by state (and by case type), but it’s generally between 2 and 3 years for most personal injury lawsuits.
If you’ve been injured in a case where strict liability might apply, consider using our free online directory to locate a personal injury attorney in your area.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.