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What is strict liability in US law? Is it really possible for a person to be held liable who did not intend to do harm or violate a law, and who was not negligent?

(This question is in response to issues raised in answers to the question "Is there a legal principle regarding laws that cannot reasonably be complied with?"

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The WEX legal dictionary says:

In both tort and criminal law, strict liability exists when a defendant is liable for committing an action, regardless of what his/her intent or mental state was when committing the action. In criminal law, possession crimes and statutory rape are both examples of strict liability offenses.

It goes on to say:

In criminal law, strict liability is generally limited to minor offenses. Criminal law classifies strict liability as one of five possible mentes reae (mental states) that a defendant may have in pursuit of the crime. The other four are "acting knowingly," "acting purposely," "acting with recklessness," and "acting with negligence." The mens rea of strict liability typically results in more lenient punishments than the other four mentes reae. Typically in criminal law, the defendant's awareness of what he is doing would not negate a strict liability mens rea (for example, being in possession of drugs will typically result in criminal liability, regardless of whether the defendant knows that he is in possession of the drugs)

In tort law, there are two broad categories of activities for which a plaintiff may be held strictly liable - possession of certain animals and abnormally dangerous activities. Additionally, in the area of torts known as products liability, there is a sub-category known as strict products liability which applies when a defective product for which an appropriate defendant holds responsibility causes injury to an appropriate plaintiff.

In a linked article, Wex says:

A person who is found by a court to have carried on an abnormally dangerous activity will be subject to strict liability for physical harm resulting from that activity. See Restatement (Third) of Torts. § 20(a) (2009).

Courts have often identified blasting (the controlled use of explosives to break down or remove rocks) as the paradigm of an abnormally dangerous activity because of its inherent dangers, and they applied strict liability in cases where blasting resulted in physical harm.

...

an activity that is generally safe when all participants exercise reasonable care is not an abnormally dangerous activity. To be deemed abnormally dangerous, any activity must present a highly significant risk of physical harm even when all participants are reasonably careful. Most ordinary activities can be made generally safe through the exercise of reasonable care, and thus fall under the rule of negligence liability (as opposed to strict liability). See Restatement (Third) of Torts § 20, cmt.(h) (2009).

The Wikipedia article says:

In criminal and civil law, strict liability is a standard of liability under which a person is legally responsible for the consequences flowing from an activity even in the absence of fault or criminal intent on the part of the defendant.

In the field of torts, prominent examples of strict liability may include product liability, abnormally dangerous activities (e.g., blasting), intrusion onto another's land by livestock, and ownership of wild animals. Traditional criminal offenses which require no element of intent (mens rea) include statutory rape and felony murder.

In tort law, strict liability is the imposition of liability on a party without a finding of fault (such as negligence or tortious intent). The claimant need only prove that the tort occurred and that the defendant was responsible. The law imputes strict liability to situations it considers to be inherently dangerous.

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The doctrine's most famous advocates were Learned Hand, Benjamin Cardozo, and Roger J. Traynor.

Strict liability is sometimes distinguished from absolute liability. In this context, an actus reus (guilty act) may be excused from strict liability if due diligence is proved. Absolute liability, however, requires only an actus reus.

... (Criminal law)

In the United States strict liability can be determined by looking at the intent of the legislature. If the legislature seems to have purposefully left out a mental state element (mens rea) because they felt mental state need not be proven, it is treated as a strict liability.

The Justia article says:

Strict liability is a theory that imposes legal responsibility for damages or injuries even if the person who was found strictly liable did not act with fault or negligence. This theory usually applies in three types of situations: animal bites (in certain states), manufacturing defects, and abnormally dangerous activities.

Most states now impose strict tort liability for defectively manufactured products. Plaintiffs in states that recognize strict liability for manufacturing defects will not need to show that the manufacturer failed to use due care or was reckless. A plaintiff can recover damages even if the manufacturer used all appropriate care in the preparation of the product.

A plaintiff suing under a theory of strict liability will need to show that there was a defect, that the defect actually and proximately caused the plaintiff’s injury, and that the defect made the product unreasonably dangerous. Not only buyers of the product, but also bystanders or guests and others who do not have a direct relationship with the product can sue for strict liability if they are injured by the product.

The Nolo article says:

“Strict liability” is a concept mainly applicable to civil, rather than criminal, law. It’s a way of holding someone accountable for behavior regardless of fault. It often arises with lawsuits against product manufacturers—in applicable cases, the plaintiff doesn’t need to show that the manufacturer was negligent in creating the product.

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In criminal law, strict liability laws punish people regardless of their state of mind—the prosecution doesn’t need to prove that a defendant intended to do something that's illegal. The prosecution doesn’t even need to establish that the defendant was reckless or negligent.

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The most common example of a strict liability crime is statutory rape: In many states, it’s a crime to have sex with a minor, no matter the circumstances. It’s a crime in those places even if the defendant honestly and reasonably believed that the sexual partner was old enough to give legal consent.

In Foster v. Preston Mill Co. 44 Wn.2d 440 (1954) The Supreme Court of Washington wrote:

The modern doctrine of strict liability for dangerous substances and activities stems from Justice Blackburn's decision in *Rylands v. Fletcher**, 1 Exch. 265, decided in 1866 and affirmed two years later in Fletcher v. Rylands, L.R. 3 H.L. 330. Prosser on Torts, 449, § 59. As applied to blasting operations, the doctrine has quite uniformly been held to establish liability, irrespective of negligence, for property damage sustained as a result of casting rocks or other debris on adjoining or neighboring premises. Patrick v. Smith, 75 Wash. 407, 134 Pac. 1076; Schade Brewing Co. v. Chicago, M. & P.S.R. Co., 79 Wash. 651, 140 Pac. 897; Bedell v. Goulter, 199 Ore. 344, 261 P. (2d) 842; Exner v. Sherman Power Constr. Co., 54 F. (2d) 510. But, see Klepsch v. Donald, 4 Wash. 436, 30 Pac. 991.

There is a division of judicial opinion as to whether the doctrine of absolute liability should apply where the damage from blasting is caused, not by the casting of rocks and debris, but by concussion, vibration, or jarring. This court has adopted the view that the doctrine applies in such cases. See Patrick v. Smith, supra. In the Patrick case, it was held that contractors who set off an exceedingly large blast of powder, causing the earth for a considerable distance to shake violently, were liable to an adjoining owner whose well was damaged and water supply lost, without regard to their negligence in setting off the blast, although there was no physical invasion of the property. For excellent expositions of this view, see Exner v. Sherman Power Constr. Co., supra; and Bedell v. Goulter, supra.

In his article Strict Liability in Negligence published in the DePaul Law Review (2012) Kenneth S. Abraham, writes:

The distinction between strict liability and negligence is a fundamental feature of tort law. Tort law theory contrasts strict liability and negligence by identifying different justifications for each standard.'Tort law in practice draws a sharp distinction between strict liability and negligence. Not only is this distinction highly important as a matter of substance; it seems to be taken for granted that the distinction is clear and uncontroversial

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What actually amounts to strict liability in negligence is virtually never labeled this way in the case law. But saying that strict liability is negligence does not make it so. ... I am less concerned with terminology here than with the fact that, whatever these forms of liability may be called, they are distinctive in certain ways from much of mainstream negligence and are therefore worthy of separate attention.

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A negligence system that purports to condition liability on the commission of wrongs-but also sometimes imposes stricter liability for conduct that is not so clearly blameworthy-would seem to be influenced in practice by the same instrumental considerations that support the imposition of strict liability.

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Negligence is the failure to exercise reasonable care; strict liability is the imposition of liability even when reasonable care has been exercised.

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there are forms of liability that are imposed without regard to negligence and that carry little or no disapproval. For most commentators, "traditional" strict liability for harm caused by abnormally dangerous activities falls into this category. There is no message implied in the imposition of this form of liability that the defendant should have behaved differently. Such conduct does not breach a standard of care.

The Newsome-Melton article "Negligence And Strict Liability" says:

The two most common causes of action alleged, and by far the two most common to be tried are strict liability and negligence. Each requires proof of different elements and, despite their similarities, one theory or the other will typically prove more likely to result in judgment in any particular case.

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The elements of a cause of action for negligence are:

(1) A duty of care owed by the defendant to the user of a product or a foreseeable bystander.

(2) Breach of that duty, meaning that the defendant’s conduct falls below the applicable standard of care for the activity in which he is engaged.

(3) Injury to the plaintiff that was caused by the breach.

(4) Damages.

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The doctrine of strict liability is most succinctly stated in the RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS §402A (American Law Institute 1965):

(1) One who sells any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer or to his property is subject to liability for physical harm thereby caused to the ultimate user or consume, or to his property, if

(a) the seller is engaged in the business of selling such a product, and

(b) it is expected to and does reach the user or consumer without substantial change in the condition in which it is sold.

(2) The rule stated in Subsection (1) applies although

(a) the seller has used all possible care in the preparation and sale of the product, and

(b) the user or consumer has not bought the product from or entered into any contractual relation with the seller.

Subsections (2)(a) and (b) obviously distinguish strict liability as a cause of action completely separate from negligence and breach of warranty actions


In short, there are criminal laws which impose penalties and allow people to be found guilty with no evidence of any guilty intent or even negligent action. And there are kinds of cases in which tort liability may be found in the absence of negligence or intent, even if the defendant took all reasonable precautions. These kinds of cases are limited, but within these limits proof of intent or negligence is simply not required.

  • I would consider leading with your own text rather than concluding with it. People who want to read the basis for your summary can keep reading if they want. – phoog Mar 29 at 22:46
  • @phoog That is a reasonable comment. I will see if it seems to work – David Siegel Mar 29 at 22:49
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A conviction for a criminal offense typically requires proof that the defendant engaged in some activity and that he did so with a certain mental state (known as the mens rea or scienter).

The mens rea could be set very high, as with first-degree murder, which usually involves acting purposefully and with premeditation. It could be set very low, as with negligent homicide, which requires only that the defendant should have known that what he was doing created the risk of someone dying.

But there are also laws that have no mens rea requirement, and these are known as strict-liability offenses. Where liability for most crimes depends on your mental state, liability is "strict" for these offenses because it doesn't matter what your mental state was.

These are very common.

  • Most traffic offenses have no mens rea requirement.
  • Statutory rape is also typically a strict-liability offense. You can check ID, ask the parents, or use carbon-dating, but if you she's under age, you've got a problem.
  • Many regulatory offenses -- such as distributing prescription drugs without the appropriate warning labels, selling alcohol to minors -- are also strict-liability offenses.

In the United States, there isn't much debate anymore about whether the government can impose such crimes. The U.S. Supreme Court endorsed the practice nearly 100 years ago in United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250, 251–52 (1922):

While the general rule at common law was that the scienter was a necessary element in the indictment and proof of every crime, and this was followed in regard to statutory crimes even where the statutory definition did *252 not in terms include it (Rex v. Sleep, 8 Cox, 472),(Rex v. Sleep, 8 Cox, 472), there has been a modification of this view in respect to prosecutions under statutes the purpose of which would be obstructed by such a requirement.

The rule remains a good one, with the Court endorsing it several times since. E.g., Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 260 (1952) ("The conclusion reached in the Balint and Behrman cases has our approval and adherence for the circumstances to which it was there applied."); Dean v. United States, 556 U.S. 568, 580 (2009) ("With only a few narrowly delineated exceptions for such crimes as statutory rape and public welfare offenses, the presumption remains the rule today."); Elonis v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2001, 2003 (2015) ("The “general rule” is that a guilty mind is a necessary element.")

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The quotes in David Siegel's answer are correct, but his interpretations of it are not totally true.

Intent and negligence as defined in MPC's classification for mentes reae are not required. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/mens_rea

However, that doesn't mean the court has blindly held that Strict Liability has no defenses is where his explanation fails.

Assumed risk, negates Mr. Siegel's interpretation of strict liability being applied even when all precautions are taken. https://www.justia.com/injury/negligence-theory/strict-liability/

Yes, there are some cases where strict liability applies and it should apply. I am not arguing against it, but it doesn't blindly mean that anything that could be covered does without question.

  • This is a comment on another answer, not an answer itself, and should be made as a comment. As the the substance, I never said, nor intended to imply, that there is no possible defense in a strict liability case. I said only that lack of intent and failure to prove negligence are not defenses. I also said that the class of cases where the concept applies is narrow. But it is not empty, as @Putvi stated in comments on the linked question. The Foster case said that SL is " held to establish liability, irrespective of negligence" – David Siegel Mar 29 at 21:09
  • It depends on how you use the word negligence though. As I said, in terms of the MPC classification, you are right about negligence, but in terms of the word negligence being used just as an explanation online, no. – Putvi Mar 29 at 21:13
  • "negligence" is a legal term of art, and is used as such on this site. And what sort of "negligence" are you suggesting is present in, for example, the blasting cases? – David Siegel Mar 29 at 21:19
  • Negligence has a legal connotation to it, but that doesn't mean it has to be interpreted as such, as it also has a plain English meaning. Its not only a legal term. In the blasting cases for example, one can reasonably assume explosives may injure someone or destroy something. Therefore you could be negligent in protecting those things as used in the English definition of the word, even if you aren't applying a legal principle like the MPC classifcation. – Putvi Mar 29 at 21:23
  • Are you saying that any use of explosives constitutes negligence, even if all normal and reasonable precautions are taken, and independent experts do not recommend any additional precautions? If that is what you mean, I think you are stretching "negligence" well beyond any ordinary meaning. If that is not what you mean, then please clarify, because it seem to me that is what you imply. – David Siegel Mar 29 at 21:28

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