What Is Strict Liability?

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Very frequently, in South Carolina law, one comes across the term “strict liability.” It is a legal theory that assigns liability even if one had no intent to injure or cause other harm. Because it does not actually require proof of malice or negligence, there are many misconceptions about when the theory applies. Acquiring a better understanding can help make the difference between a successful lawsuit and one dismissed with prejudice.

Strict Product Liability

Perhaps the most common manner in which strict liability is discussed under South Carolina law is in connection with product liability cases. Most of the time, a product liability claim is brought by showing that one of three defects occurred: in design, in manufacturing or in marketing (also known as failure to warn), and by showing that negligence occurred on the part of the manufacturer or seller. However, over time, the concept of strict product liability came about because it was proving too difficult to show that manufacturers were negligent, even though plaintiffs were being injured.

Strict product liability essentially means that a plaintiff must only prove two factors, rather than the four traditionally associated with negligence law, in order to hold a manufacturer liable. A manufacturer has a duty to exercise due care with regard to their customers’ safety, and if a plaintiff can show that duty was breached, it places liability on the manufacturer’s shoulders. The focus is less on the manufacturer’s conduct, and more on the condition of the product, regardless of whose fault it may have been – the only way specifically delineated in law that a manufacturer or seller will not be held strictly liable for a defective product is if they can show that the product was “materially altered” before reaching the consumer.

Strict Liability for Animal Bites

The other incidence in which strict liability plays a significant role is in cases regarding dog (or other animal) bites. South Carolina law dictates that if someone is bitten or attacked by an animal while they are in public or lawfully on private property, that animal’s owner or keeper is liable for the damages. The rationale is that animals, as a general rule, have the power to significantly injure people, and an owner assumes responsibility for their animal’s behavior when they take possession of the animal.

South Carolina’s statute is unusual in one respect among laws that deal with animal bites: it explicitly lays out a possible defense in the text of the law. South Carolina Code Sec. 47-3-110 sets out the ‘provocation defense,’ meaning that if a person provokes a dog to attack, the owner may not be held strictly liable because there is then an intervening cause for the dog’s behavior.

Many laymen think that strict liability means that no defense is possible, but it is important to understand that this is not the case – it simply means that a defense must speak to conduct, rather than legal argument. In other words, defenses to strict liability must argue that the conduct in question does not fit some aspect of the statute. A dog owner is not strictly liable for their dog’s bite if their dog attacks after provocation. A manufacturer of a product is not strictly liable for their product’s defects if that product was altered between the manufacturer and the consumer.

An Experienced Attorney Can Clarify Further

Strict liability theories of law can make it easier for a plaintiff to win their suit, because they have fewer criteria to satisfy in pursuit of a negligence finding. However, this does not mean that the path to doing so is easy. A skilled attorney can make a significant difference. The zealous North Charleston personal injury attorneys at Callihan & Syracuse can help explain the fine points of law that can affect your case in fundamental ways, and will work with you to increase the odds of obtaining an optimal result. Contact our office to set up a free initial consultation.