Strict liability holds people liable for their conduct no matter what their intent or mental state was. If you can show that you were hurt by the defendant’s conduct and that strict liability applies to the case, you have proven the elements of strict liability. It applies in several areas of personal injury law, as well as to some criminal cases.
What is strict liability?
Strict liability is liability without fault. It can apply to certain personal injury cases as well as to a small group of criminal cases.
Personal injury cases
Generally, in personal injury cases, victims have to prove 3 elements by a preponderance of the evidence:
- the defendant owed the victim a duty of care,
- the defendant breached that duty of care through conduct that was at least negligent, and
- the negligent conduct was a substantial factor in the causation of the plaintiff’s injuries.1
However, personal injury law imposes strict liability in a limited set of cases. That set of strict liability cases varies by jurisdiction. Generally, though, they include causes of action based on:
In these types of cases, the defendant can be held strictly liable for injuries they cause. Victims do not have to prove that the defendant negligently breached their duty of care. The defendant will be held liable no matter how much they tried to prevent the injuries, so long as the conduct was a substantial factor in causing the injuries.
Showing that strict liability applies is important. It makes it far easier for victims to recover compensation.
In criminal cases, prosecutors have to prove 2 elements beyond a reasonable doubt:
- the defendant committed an “actus reus,” or a criminal act, and
- the defendant committed it with “mens rea,” or a culpable state of mind.
Each criminal law or statute defines:
- the conduct that amounts to the criminal act, and
- the necessary mental state that the defendant must be in to commit the crime.
While some states may have their own definitions, there are generally 4 types of culpable mental states:
- recklessness, and
For example, the actus reus and mens rea for robbery are:
- using force or fear to take personal property from the owner’s person, against his or her will (actus reus),
- with the intent to permanently deprive them of that property (mens rea).3
However, not all crimes require a culpable mental state. These are strict liability crimes. Generally, they are infractions like traffic tickets. However, a few crimes, like driving under the influence (DUI), are strict liability offenses. DUI is a strict liability offense because it only requires proof of the act – driving a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol content (BAC) above the legal limit of 0.08 percent. It does not require proof of a culpable state of mind.
When does it apply in tort or personal injury cases?
Strict liability only applies to personal injury cases in limited circumstances. Generally, those strict liability claims are for:
- products liability,
- dog bites or other animal attacks, and
- abnormally dangerous activities.
When it does apply to a case, victims have an easier time proving their claim. When the theory of strict liability does not apply, you can still proceed under the legal theory of negligence. These negligence claims require a showing that the defendant did not behave as a reasonable person would have by adopting appropriate due care for others.
Under products liability law, companies that put products up for sale can be held strictly liable for injuries that the product causes because of a:
Strict liability only applies if the use of the product that was defective was reasonably foreseeable.5 If the defective product was not being used correctly or was being used in a way that violated its warranty, the defendant company will likely raise the defense of assumption of risk. This can make it far more difficult to win a product liability case.
A personal injury lawyer from a reputable law firm can help victims of a product defect pursue a strict products liability claim before the applicable statute of limitations has expired.
Dog bites and other animal attacks
In some states, dog owners are held strictly liable for any injuries caused by their pets. In these states, victims of dog attacks can recover compensation without showing that the owner was negligent or that the dog had a history of biting people.6
Not all states apply strict liability to dog bites, though. Many others require evidence that the owner was negligent. This is usually shown through the “one bite rule.” Under this rule, victims can show that the dog had a history of biting at least one other person. The prior bite puts the owner on notice that his or her dog is a threat to other people. The owner is then held liable for all subsequent bites because they are aware of the possibility.7
Additionally, owners are strictly liable for injuries that are caused by pets that are normally wild animals.8 This includes animals that are not unreasonably dangerous and not normally associated with violent attacks.9
Inherently dangerous activities
If you suffered an injury because someone else was engaged in an inherently or abnormally dangerous activity, strict liability can apply to your claim. Parties engaging in such ultrahazardous activities are held liable for any foreseeable injuries that result, regardless of how carefully they carried out those activities.10
Whether an activity is inherently dangerous is often something that the court, not the jury, decides.11 Some factors include:
- whether there is a high degree of risk of harm to other people, land, or property,
- the likelihood that the resulting harm will be great,
- the inability to eliminate that risk by using reasonable care,
- how common or uncommon the activity is,
- whether the activity is inappropriate for the premises, and how inappropriate it is, and
- whether the value of the activity to the community is outweighed by its danger.12
Some examples have included:
- using dynamite on property and causing physical harm to others, including through the use of the shock waves of the detonations,13
- explosions of large amounts of gasoline or propane in transit on a highway,14
- damage caused by vibrations from testing a large rocket,15 and
- using toxic chemicals to kill pests.16
Victims can suffer a wide variety of injuries from these activities, including:
- physical injuries, like broken bones from an explosion,
- diseases, like cancer from exposure to a dangerous chemical, or
- property damage, like a basement flooded by nearby drilling.
When injuries were caused by an abnormally dangerous activity, the defendant can be held strictly liable for them. The victim does not need to show that the defendant was behaving negligently in order to recover compensation.
When does it apply to criminal cases?
Crimes are strict liability crimes when the criminal statute explicitly makes it so.17 When there is no express requirement that there be a culpable state of mind, courts generally infer that there is such a requirement.18
Generally, strict liability offenses are traffic offenses like:
- failing to attach vehicle registration,
- driving in a bike lane,
- lane straddling, and
- unsafe passing.
These infractions often do not require prosecutors to prove a culpable state of mind because of how minor and common the offense was. Requiring such evidence would be an onerous task for law enforcement to do so frequently.
- See, e.g., Kesner v. Superior Court, 1 Cal.5th 1132 (2016).
- Model Penal Code 2.02.
- See California Penal Code 211 PC and California Criminal Jury Instructions (CALCRIM) No. 1600.
- See California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) No. 1200.
- Soule v. GM Corp., 8 Cal.4th 548 (1994).
- See, e.g., California Civil Code 3342 CIV.
- See Borns v. Voss, 70 P.3d 262 (Wyo. 2003) (citing Restatement (Second) Torts, § 509).
- See American States Ins. Co. v. Guillermin, 671 N.E.2d 317 (1996) (lion).
- See Smith v. Jalbert, 221 N.E.2d 744 (1966) (zebra).
- See CACI No. 460.
- See Luthringer v. Moore, 31 Cal.2d 489 (1948).
- Restatement (Second) Torts, § 520.
- Spano v. Perini Corp., 250 N.E.2d 31 (N.Y. 1969).
- Siegler v. Kuhlman, 502 P.2d 1181 (Wash. 1972).
- Smith v. Lockheed Propulsion Co., 247 Cal.App.2d 774 (1967).
- Luthringer v. Moore, supra note 11.
- See Lambert v. California, 78 S.Ct. 240 (1957).
- See U.S. v. Garrett, 984 F.2d 1402 (5th Cir. 1993).