If you are not a lawyer, you probably think of a tort as a delicious dessert. However, a tort is also a legal term that refers to something someone did or failed to do that caused injury to someone else. A strict liability tort is a specific type of tort.
What Is a Strict Liability Tort?
Tort law exists to provide a pathway for people to recover damages when injured by the action or inaction of another person or entity. It also exists as a deterrent to those who might engage in behaviors that could harm others if there was no potential penalty for doing so. Tort laws shift the financial burden from the damaged party to the party responsible for the damage.
Judges make decisions in tort cases based on statutory and common law. As a result, while tort laws in different states tend to be similar, there are some differences. Most torts fall into one of three main categories.
Intentional torts involve damage caused by something someone intentionally did or did not do. Battery is an example of an intentional tort. The plaintiff must prove intent to win an intentional tort case.
Negligence torts occur when someone’s negligent actions or inactions result in harm to another party. Automobile accidents are one of the most common examples of negligence torts. A plaintiff must prove the defendant’s negligence caused the damage to win a negligence tort case.
Strict Liability Torts
In a strict liability tort, the defendant is legally liable for damages even if the defendant did not intend any harm or do anything negligent. Dog bite cases are a common example.
When Is Strict Liability Applied?
The three times when strict liability laws are usually applied are animal bites, abnormally dangerous activities, and manufacturing defects.
In Arizona, dog owners are strictly liable for damages caused to other parties if their dog bites someone in a public place or in a private place where that person was legally entitled to be. This applies even if the owner secured the dog with a leash and the dog had no prior aggression or bite history.
However, strict liability does not apply to police or military dogs that bite someone during a crime investigation. It also does not apply to people who get bitten by a dog while trespassing on someone else’s property. People or entities who own or possess other types of animals, such as livestock, exotic pets, or wild animals, may also be subject to strict liability for damages caused by those animals.
Abnormally Dangerous or Ultrahazardous Activities
In many states, when a person or entity creates an abnormally dangerous condition or engages in an ultrahazardous activity that results in harm to someone else, it is a strict liability tort. Ultrahazardous activities have the potential to cause serious harm, are not routinely performed and are such a high risk that it is not possible to protect other parties by taking reasonable care.
Examples of activities that courts often consider to be ultrahazardous include:
- Storing flammable liquids in urban areas
- Pile driving
- Crop dusting
- Fumigation with cyanide gas
- Emission of noxious fumes by manufacturing plants in settled areas
States and localities have different laws about which activities are ultrahazardous.
Most states impose strict liability on manufacturers of products when those products injure someone because of a design or manufacturing defect or the manufacturer fails to warn consumers about hidden dangers. In these cases, the plaintiff may recover damages even if the manufacturer exercised reasonable care in manufacturing the product.
To win a product liability case, the plaintiff must prove that the product is defective, the defect made the product unreasonably dangerous, and that the defect caused the plaintiff’s injury. Plaintiffs can bring product liability lawsuits under strict liability, negligence, or breach of warranty laws.
What Does the Plaintiff Need To Prove To Win a Strict Liability Tort Case?
In most personal injury cases, the plaintiff must prove three things to win:
- The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care.
- The defendant’s negligent conduct breached that duty of care.
- The defendant’s negligent conduct substantially contributed to the plaintiff’s injuries.
When strict liability applies, the plaintiff does not need to prove that the defendant negligently breached a duty of care. The plaintiff only needs to prove that the defendant’s actions or inactions caused the plaintiff’s injuries.
What Are the Defenses to Strict Liability?
Strict liability cases are generally easier to prove than other types of torts because the plaintiff does not need to prove intent or negligence. However, there are several potential defenses.
Assumption of Risk
An assumption of risk defense requires the defendant to prove that the plaintiff knew about the risk and voluntarily assumed it. For example, a restaurant that serves hot coffee might assert that a guest burned by the coffee knew that the coffee was hot and assumed the risk of handling or consuming it.
Statute of Limitations
For most cases, the statute of limitations in Arizona is two years from the date of the incident that caused the injury. However, because sometimes injuries are not apparent until later, there are some exceptions to the statute of limitations.
Under Arizona law, plaintiffs must bring a product liability case within two years of the date of the injury or within two years of the date the plaintiff discovered the injury. If the plaintiff’s case involves a breach of warranty, the plaintiff has six years to file a lawsuit. The statute of limitations for dog bite cases is one year from the date of the bite. If the defendant can prove that the statute of limitations has expired, the plaintiff will not be able to recover damages.
The defendant may win a strict liability tort case by proving that the plaintiff was not injured by the actions or inactions of the defendant. For example, if a plaintiff is claiming damages due to injuries caused by a defective cellphone that burst into flames, the defense could assert that a cooking accident, rather than the phone, caused the plaintiff’s burns.
Modification is a potential defense to product liability claims that involve an assertion that the plaintiff’s injuries resulted from modifications to the product made after the product left the defendant’s control. For example, the defendant might assert that the plaintiff’s phone caught fire, not because of a product defect, but because the plaintiff installed a third-party battery that was defective or not compatible with the phone.
A manufacturer can still be liable for damages caused by misusing a product if the misuse was foreseeable. For example, the manufacturer might reasonably foresee that someone may leave a cell phone in a hot car and that the heat from the car might cause the battery to explode. However, the court may not expect the manufacturer to anticipate that someone might leave a cell phone on top of a hot stove.
Dog owners may assert this defense if a dog bite occurred because the plaintiff provoked the dog. Arizona statute defines provocation as attacking, tormenting, or inciting the dog.
What Are the Remedies for a Strict Liability Tort?
Torts are civil wrongs, though some actions, such as battery, may result in both a tort and a criminal charge. The primary remedy for torts is financial compensation. However, in some cases, the plaintiff may sue for an injunction to compel the defendant to stop doing something.
Most plaintiffs who win a tort case receive compensatory damages. Compensatory damages can be pecuniary or nonpecuniary. Pecuniary damages include objective losses, such as medical expenses or lost wages. Nonpecuniary damages include emotional injuries, such as pain and suffering.
The purpose of compensatory damages is to put the plaintiffs back in the position they were in before the tort happened. Plaintiffs may recover compensatory damages for:
- Lost earnings
- Reduced earning capacity
- Medical expenses
- Pain and suffering
- Property damage
- Loss of use
As an example, if a plaintiff won a strict liability tort case against the manufacturer of a cellular phone that caught fire while the plaintiff was using it, the plaintiff may receive compensatory damages for medical bills for treating the burns, pain and suffering that resulted from the injuries, replacement of the plaintiff’s damaged property, and the value of the phone that caught fire. If the plaintiff had to miss work to receive medical treatment or rent a hotel room because of fire damage to the plaintiff’s home, the plaintiff may also receive compensatory damages for those losses.
Sometimes courts award punitive damages to punish a party for egregious actions or deter other parties from engaging in similar conduct. For example, if the manufacturer of the phone knew there was a defect that could cause it to catch fire but sold the phone anyway, the court may award punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages.
A court in Arizona can not award punitive damages in some cases:
- The manufacturer designed, packaged, manufactured, or sold the product in accordance with the terms or approval of a government agency.
- A government agency permitted or authorized the contract provision that is the basis for the lawsuit.
- The product complied with all Arizona rules, statutes, and regulations.
Judges determine the value of punitive damages. In some cases, judges calculate punitive damages based on compensatory damages. For example, a judge may award punitive damages that are three times the compensatory damages.
In cases where plaintiffs assert they will suffer irreparable or considerable harm if a defendant does not stop doing something, the plaintiff may sue for an injunction. For example, a plaintiff with injuries due to the noxious fumes emitted by a manufacturing plant might sue to stop the plant from operating until it resolves the issue with the harmful fumes.
How Does Comparative Negligence Impact a Strict Liability Tort Case?
While the plaintiff does not need to prove that the defendant was negligent in a strict liability case, negligence laws may still impact the case because the defendant may assert that the plaintiff is partly responsible for their own damages. Under Arizona’s comparative negligence laws, when people are partly responsible for their own damages, their share of the negligence reduces their ability to recover damages from the other party.
Does Strict Liability Apply to Vaccines?
Strict liability applies to vaccine manufacturers except for vaccines that children must get to attend public schools. The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act established a no-fault compensation system for injuries caused by these vaccines.
How Long Does It Take To Settle a Strict Liability Tort Case?
The amount of time it takes to settle a case usually depends on how complex the case is, how severe the damage is, and how willing the parties are to settle out of court. A simple case may take a few months. More complex cases may take years to resolve.
Which State’s Laws Apply?
In cases that only involve parties that reside in one state, such as most dog bite cases, the law in the state where the injury occurred usually applies. However, in product liability cases, the manufacturer of the product may reside in a different state than the injured person. When a tort case involves multiple states, the courts determine which laws apply based on several factors:
- Where the injury occurred
- Where the actions that caused the injury occurred
- Location where the relationship between the parties is based
- State of residence of each party
- Policies of the relevant jurisdictions and their interest in the outcome
- Necessity of uniform and predictable results
Most of the time, the court will apply the relevant laws of the state where the injury happened unless another state has a more significant relationship with the involved parties.
Where Can You Get Help With Your Strict Liability Tort Case?
If another party’s actions injured you or caused the death of a loved one, you may be able to recover compensation. Whether your case is a strict liability tort or the other party may be at fault due to negligence, the attorneys at MDK Law Group can help. Contact us online to schedule a free consultation.