Location:
LIABILITY, LEGAL;

OLR Research Report


September 15, 2009

 

2009-R-0336

STRICT LIABILITY

By: George Coppolo, Chief Attorney

You asked for examples of state statutes that impose strict civil liability.

SUMMARY

We found five statutes that impose strict liability for causing injury to some one's person or property by engaging in certain activities without the requirement that the injured party allege and prove that the defendant acted negligently. These statutes deal with transferring a firearm to someone prohibited by law from possessing one, failing to securely store a loaded firearm, parental liability for damages caused by their minor child's intentional or malicious misconduct, damage caused by the keeper of domestic fowl, and damage caused by a dog bite.

In addition, the common law imposes strict liability for damages caused by using dynamite or other explosive devices or substances, pile driving, and the illegal use of fireworks. Some Superior Court cases have held that storing or disposing of hazardous materials is a hazardous activity, while others have reached the opposite conclusion.

STATUTES THAT IMPOSE STRICT LIABILITY

We found the following five statutes that impose strict liability on an individual for certain conduct:

1. anyone who sells, delivers, or otherwise transfers a firearm to a person knowing that such other person is prohibited from possessing such firearm is strictly liable for damages for the injury or death of another person resulting from the use of the firearm by any person (CGS 52-571f);

2. anyone whose act or omission constitutes a failure to securely store a loaded firearm is strictly liable for damages when a minor (person under age 16) obtains a firearm and causes the injury or death of the minor or any other person (CGS 52-571g);

3. the parent parents, or guardian of any unemancipated minor or minors who willfully or maliciously cause damage to property or injury to any person or, having taken a motor vehicle without the owner's permission, cause damage to the motor vehicle, are jointly and severally liable with the minor or minors for the damage or injury to an amount up to $5,000 if the minor or minors would have been liable if they had been adults (CGS 52-572);

4. any owner or keeper of domestic fowls who allows them to trespass upon the premises of another person is liable to the owner or occupant of such premises for all damage done by the fowls (CGS 52-561a).

5. the owner or keeper of a dog, is liable for damage done by the dog, except when the damage was sustained by a person who, was committing a trespass or other tort, or was teasing, tormenting or abusing the dog (CGS 22-357).

COMMON LAW STRICT LIABILITY FOR ULTRA HAZARDOUS ACTIVITIES

Under the common law (judge-made), the doctrine of absolute or strict liability may be imposed on those who engage in ultra hazardous activities. Under this doctrine, an injured person is not required to show that his or her loss was caused by the defendant's negligence. It is sufficient to show only that the defendant engaged in an ultra hazardous activity that caused the defendant's loss.

Strict liability applies when an activity, not regularly engaged in by the general public, is conducted in or near a populated area, such that it necessarily subjects people to potentially serious injury in the event of a mishap (Levenstein v. Yale University, 40 Conn.Sup. 123, 126 (1984)). Strict liability for an abnormally dangerous activity requires that certain factors exist:

1. an instrumentality capable of producing harm;

2. circumstances and conditions in its use which, irrespective of a lawful purpose or due care, involve a risk of probable injury to such a degree that the activity fairly can be said to be intrinsically dangerous to the person or property of others; and

3. a causal relation between the activity and the injury for which damages are claimed” (Caporale v. C.W. Blakeslee & Sons, Inc., 149 Conn. 79, 85 (1961)).

The courts in Connecticut and other jurisdictions that recognize the doctrine of strict liability for dangerous activities impose it only in narrow circumstances. Traditionally, strict liability for ultra-hazardous activity had been applied solely in the context of blasting and explosives (Whitman Hotel Corp. v. Elliott & Watrous Engineering Co., 137 Conn. 562 (1951). It was later extended to pile driving (Caporale v. C.W. Blakeslee & Sons, Inc., 149 Conn. at 85);research experiments involving highly volatile chemicals (Green v. Ensign-Bickford Co., 25 Conn.App. 479, 482-83, cert. denied, 220 Conn. 919, 597 A.2d 341 (1991); and the illegal display of fireworks (Lipka v. DiLungo, 2000 Conn. Supp. 3894, 26 Conn. L. Rptr. 654 (2000)).

In strict liability, just as in negligence, a defendant's activity must have been the proximate cause of the harm suffered in order for liability to be imposed. “Proximate cause” is defined as an actual cause that is a substantial factor in the resulting harm (Carrano v. Yale-New Haven Hospital, 279 Conn. 622, 656 (2006)).Thus for example, in order for a plaintiff to prevail on an allegation of strict liability in a blasting operations case, the plaintiff must show that the injury or damages alleged resulted from the explosion.

There is a split of authority in Superior Court as to whether the storage or disposal of hazardous materials constitutes an ultra hazardous activity. For example, some courts have found the storage of gasoline in underground tanks and pumps is an abnormally dangerous activity where gasoline has leaked and contaminated neighboring property and water supplies (Southern New England Telephone Co. v. Clifford, Superior Court, Judicial District of Litchfield, Docket No. 057131 (December 10, 1991,) (5 Conn. L. Rptr. 331, 331- 32); Michael v. Kenyon Oil Co., Inc., Superior Court, Judicial District of Hartford-New Britain at Hartford, Docket No. 344098, 4 C.S.C.R. 337, 339).

Some cases hold that disposal of hazardous wastes may be an abnormally dangerous activity (Bourbeau v. Alpha Q., Inc., supra, Superior Court, Docket No. CV 05 4015076, 2007 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1552; Kurzyna v. New Britain, Superior Court, Judicial District of New Britain, Docket No. CV 00 0504388, 32 Conn. L. Rptr. 118, 123, 2002 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1368, 26; Mather v. Birken Manufacturing Co., Superior Court, Judicial District of Hartford, Docket No. CV 96 0564862, 23 Conn. L. Rptr. 443, 448-49, 1998 Conn. Super. LEXIS 3669, 10);

Other Superior Court cases have found that the storage of gasoline in underground tanks and pumps is not abnormally dangerous and therefore a strict liability claim was not warranted. (See Goodrich v. Jennings, Superior Court, Judicial District of Stamford/Norwalk at Stamford, Docket No. 150074, 19 Conn. L. Rptr. 542; 543-44); Burns v. Lehigh, Inc., Superior Court, judicial district of Hartford-New Britain at Hartford, Docket No. 342600, July 12, 1988 Hennessey; Putnam v. County Environmental Services, Inc., Superior Court, Judicial District of Stamford/Norwalk at Stamford, Docket No. 166445, 27 Conn. L. Rptr. 684 (2000)).

Several other state court decisions have concluded that the storage and disposal of hazardous materials is not necessarily an ultra-hazardous activity (French Putnam, LLC v. County Environmental Services, Inc., Superior Court, Judicial District of Stamford-Norwalk at Stamford, Docket No. CV 98 0166445, 27 Conn. L. Rptr. 684, 695, 2000 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1866; Goodrich v. Jennings, Superior Court, judicial district of Stamford-Norwalk at Stamford, Docket No. CV 96 0150074, 19 Conn. L. Rptr. 542, 544, 1997 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1399; Skelton v. Chemical Leaman Tank Lines, Inc., Superior Court, Judicial District of New Haven, Docket No. CV 94 0359236, 17 Conn. L. Rptr. 56, 58, 1996 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1231, (1996); Bernbach v. Timex Corp., 989 F. Supp. 403, 407-08 (D.Conn. 1996); Nielsen v. Sioux Tools, Inc., 870 F.Sup. 435, 442 (D.Conn. 1994); Arawana Mills Co. v. United Technologies Corp., 795 F.Sup. 1238, 1251-52 (D.Conn. 1992)).

Some decisions have, distinguished between the disposal of hazardous materials and the storage of them, and held that mere storage does not constitute an ultra-hazardous activity without allegations that the corrosive properties or the gaseous nature of the materials makes them unable to be safely stored and reasonably handled without leaking or escaping into the environment. (See Connecticut Water Co. v. Thomaston, Superior Court, Judicial District of Hartford at Hartford, Docket No. 535590, 16 Conn. L. Rptr. 213, 216-17(1996); Skelton v. Chemical Leaman Tank Lines, Inc., Superior Court, Judicial District of New Haven at New Haven, Docket No. 359236, 17 Conn. L. Rptr. 56, 57-58 (1996)).

GC:df