DOES STRICT LIABILITY ALWAYS APPLY TO INJURIES INVOLVING “ABNORMALLY DANGEROUS” ACTIVITIES?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Williams v. Amoco Production Co., 241 Kan. 102, 734 P.2d 1113 (1987).
This case addresses the following issue:
Does strict liability always apply to injuries involving “abnormally dangerous” activities?
This case dealt with property damage arising from a natural gas leak. Id. at 104. Kansas law generally imposes strict liability—meaning liability without a need to show fault or negligence by the defendant—when injuries are caused by “abnormally dangerous activities.” Id. at 113. These activities include explosives, poisons, and natural gas. Id. at 114. In this case, the court was asked to decide if all injuries caused in connection with these activities impose strict liability, or if the injury must arise from what makes the activity so dangerous. Id. at 114-15. The court ultimately determined that strict liability only applies when the inherent danger of the activity is what causes the injuries; otherwise, a plaintiff must show negligence to prevail. Id. at 116.
Plaintiff in this case owned a very large farm in southwestern Kansas. Id. at 104. Plaintiff grew crops on the large farm for several years. Id. Defendant owned adjacent property that it used to mine natural gas from underground. Id. at 105. Plaintiff began noticing that crops on the farm were growing very slowly and not producing. Id. Plaintiff ultimately had his irrigation water tested, and it revealed high concentrations of undesirable chemicals in the water. Id. After investigating, it was revealed that natural gas from Defendant’s property had seeped into the source of Plaintiff’s irrigation water. Id. Plaintiff failed suit to recover the costs of two seasons’ worth of lost crops. Id.
The fact that some activities are so inherently dangerous has led courts to impose liability without fault on these activities. Id. at 114. The best example of this is dynamite or other explosives. Id. There is no way to make dynamite perfectly safe, so those that use it are held responsible regardless of how careful they are when using the explosives. Id. That’s simply the cost of being in such a dangerous business. Id.
In this case, the question was whether all injuries arising from such activities should have strict liability attached. Id. at 115. In this case, what makes natural gas so inherently dangerous—its ability to burn and combust—did not cause the damage to Plaintiff’s crops. Id. Instead, the damage came from the harsh chemical makeup of the gas and an underground seepage. Id. Because this is not what makes natural gas abnormally dangerous, the court was not willing to impose strict liability. Id. Instead, Plaintiff could only recover by showing that Defendant acted carelessly in some way—by proving negligence on the part of Defendant. Id. at 116.