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Caveat Actor: Strict Liability for Abnormally Dangerous Activities


Many students come to law school with the belief that an actor who causes injury to another is always liable for that injury. However, in cases governed by negligence law, this is not the case. Recovering in an action for negligence requires proof that the defendant breached the duty of due care. Since many accidents result from unexpected circumstances, unknowable mechanical defects, weather conditions or other nonnegligent causes, injured parties are often unable to recover, even though another person caused their injuries.

In Cohen v. Petty, 65 F.2d 820 (D.C. Cir. 1933), for example, the plaintiff was denied recovery where the defendant suffered a sudden fainting spell, lost control of his car and injured the plaintiff. The plaintiff lost in Cohen because the defendant did not owe her an absolute duty to avoid injuring her, but only a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent injuries from his driving. Where injury results despite the exercise of reasonable care, that duty has not been breached, and the injured party cannot recover under a negligence standard.

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