1. The names Seibert and Sibert are not only idem sonans–they not only sound the same in utterance–but they are, practically, the same name. Therefore, no matter which way it may be spelled by the party himself, or by the recording officer, it is notice. It is common knowledge that proper names are spelled in a variety of ways, and everybody is presumed to have such knowledge. Thus, “Reed,” “Reid,” and “Read,” are different ways of spelling one name. Manifestly, the record of a judgment against “Reed” is notice to a subsequent purchaser from the same man signing the deed as “Reid.” “Persons searching the judgment docket for liens ought to know the different forms in which the same name may be spelled, and to make their searches accordingly, unless, indeed, the spelling is so entirely unusual that a person cannot be expected to think of it.” [Citation]…

4. Some confusion has arisen in the authorities as to whether the rule as to idem sonans applies to records. It is said that the law of notice by record is addressed to the eye and not the ear, and that therefore the rule cannot apply to records. It is true that record notice is principally a matter of sight and not sound. Yet it is, above all, a matter for the consideration of the mind, and if the record of a name spelled in one way should directly suggest to the ordinary mind that it is also commonly spelled another way, the searcher should be charged with whatever the record showed in some other spelling under the same capital letter. It is not necessary to decide here whether this would be carried out to the extent of holding that the searcher for information in the record should look under some other capital for another mode of finding the same name, as, for instance, “Kane” and “Cain,” “Phelps” and “Felps,” etc. But that the rule of idem sonans has been applied to records has been too often accepted by the supreme court of this state for us to question it.

Green v. Meyers, 72 S.W. 128 (1903).


Mortgage at Common Law

January 24, 2007

At common law the mortgagee was at first treated as being the legal owner. His estate was devisable and descended to his heirs. After breach of the condition he could oust the mortgagor by an action in ejectment, or by any other means that did not involve a breach of the peace. In equity, however, the rights of the mortgagee passed to his personal representatives, and the mortgagor was regarded as the real owner of the land. These conflicting views were carried so far that even after the courts of law had recognized the title of the mortgagee as absolute, and had put him in possession, the courts of equity enforced what they called ‘the mortgagor’s equitable right of redemption.’ These contradictory decisions gave rise to much confusion. The judges who had been trained in the rigorous school of the common law regarded the equitable rule as an offensive innovation. But the common-law rule was so harsh, and, in many cases, so extremely unjust, that the equitable rule grew in favor, and was vigorously invoked. In course of time even the courts of law came to recognize the right of the mortgagor to redeem after forfeiture. Despite this gradual and partial evolution, the mortgagee was still regarded as in some respects the legal owner of the mortgaged premises. He could maintain ejectment, and assert other legal remedies, subject only to the mortgagor’s right of redemption. It was finally appreciated, however, that the so-called ownership of the mortgagee was the merest fiction, because the only strict legal right he had left was to collect the debt secured by the mortgage. The mortgagee’s estate had been whittled down until it disappeared altogether, and there was left him nothing more than a lien under his mortgage. Under these circumstances it was, of course, absurd and unjust to permit such a creditor, for that is all that the mortgagee was, to take possession of his debtor’s property without the latter’s consent, or without first enforcing his rights under his lien. When the estate in fee was regarded as belonging to the mortgagee, the right of possession naturally followed ownership; but, when title was held to remain in the mortgagor until divested by sale under foreclosure, the possessory right of the mortgagee became a legal anomaly that could not survive.

Barson v. Mulligan, 84 N.E. 75, 78 (N.Y. 1908).

The roots of section 520 [of the Restatement 2d of Torts] are in nineteenth-century cases. The most famous one is Rylands v. Fletcher, but a more illuminating one in the present context is Guille v. Swan. A man took off in a hot-air balloon and landed, without intending to, in a vegetable garden in New York City. A crowd that had been anxiously watching his involuntary descent trampled the vegetables in their endeavor to rescue him when he landed. The owner of the garden sued the balloonist for the resulting damage, and won. Yet the balloonist had not been careless. In the then state of ballooning it was impossible to make a pinpoint landing.

Guille is a paradigmatic case for strict liability. (a) The risk (probability) of harm was great, and (b) the harm that would ensue if the risk materialized could be, although luckily was not, great (the balloonist could have crashed into the crowd rather than into the vegetables). The confluence of these two factors established the urgency of seeking to prevent such accidents. (c) Yet such accidents could not be prevented by the exercise of due care; the technology of care in ballooning was insufficiently developed. (d) The activity was not a matter of common usage, so there was no presumption that it was a highly valuable activity despite its unavoidable riskiness. (e) The activity was inappropriate to the place in which it took place — densely populated New York City. The risk of serious harm to others (other than the balloonist himself, that is) could have been reduced by shifting the activity to the sparsely inhabited areas that surrounded the city in those days. (f) Reinforcing (d), the value to the community of the activity of recreational ballooning did not appear to be great enough to offset its unavoidable risks.

These are, of course, the six factors in section 520. They are related to each other in that each is a different facet of a common quest for a proper legal regime to govern accidents that negligence liability cannot adequately control. The interrelations might be more perspicuous if the six factors were reordered. One might for example start with (c), inability to eliminate the risk of accident by the exercise of due care. The baseline common law regime of tort liability is negligence. When it is a workable regime, because the hazards of an activity can be avoided by being careful (which is to say, nonnegligent), there is no need to switch to strict liability. Sometimes, however, a particular type of accident cannot be prevented by taking care but can be avoided, or its consequences minimized, by shifting the activity in which the accident occurs to another locale, where the risk or harm of an accident will be less ((e)), or by reducing the scale of the activity in order to minimize the number of accidents caused by it ((f)). By making the actor strictly liable — by denying him in other words an excuse based on his inability to avoid accidents by being more careful — we give him an incentive, missing in a negligence regime, to experiment with methods of preventing accidents that involve not greater exertions of care, assumed to be futile, but instead relocating, changing, or reducing (perhaps to the vanishing point) the activity giving rise to the accident. The greater the risk of an accident ((a)) and the costs of an accident if one occurs ((b)), the more we want the actor to consider the possibility of making accident-reducing activity changes; the stronger, therefore, is the case for strict liability. Finally, if an activity is extremely common ((d)), like driving an automobile, it is unlikely either that its hazards are perceived as great or that there is no technology of care available to minimize them; so the case for strict liability is weakened.

The largest class of cases in which strict liability has been imposed under the standard codified in the Second Restatement of Torts involves the use of dynamite and other explosives for demolition in residential or urban areas. Explosives are dangerous even when handled carefully, and we therefore want blasters to choose the location of the activity with care and also to explore the feasibility of using safer substitutes (such as a wrecking ball), as well as to be careful in the blasting itself. Blasting is not a commonplace activity like driving a car, or so superior to substitute methods of demolition that the imposition of liability is unlikely to have any effect except to raise the activity’s costs.

Against this background we turn to the particulars of acrylonitrile. Acrylonitrile is one of a large number of chemicals that are hazardous in the sense of being flammable, toxic, or both; acrylonitrile is both, as are many others. A table in the record, drawn from Glickman & Harvey, Statistical Trends in Railroad Hazardous Material Safety, 1978 to 1984, at pp. 63-65 (Draft Final Report to the Environmental & Hazardous Material Studies Division of the Association of American Railroads, April 1986) (tab. 4.1), contains a list of the 125 hazardous materials that are shipped in highest volume on the nation’s railroads. Acrylonitrile is the fifty-third most hazardous on the list. Number 1 is phosphorus (white or yellow), and among the other materials that rank higher than acrylonitrile on the hazard scale are anhydrous ammonia, liquified petroleum gas, vinyl chloride, gasoline, crude petroleum, motor fuel antiknock compound, methyl and ethyl chloride, sulphuric acid, sodium metal, and chloroform. The plaintiff’s lawyer acknowledged at argument that the logic of the district court’s opinion dictated strict liability for all 52 materials that rank higher than acrylonitrile on the list, and quite possibly for the 72 that rank lower as well, since all are hazardous if spilled in quantity while being shipped by rail. Every shipper of any of these materials would therefore be strictly liable for the consequences of a spill or other accident that occurred while the material was being shipped through a metropolitan area. The plaintiff’s lawyer further acknowledged the irrelevance, on her view of the case, of the fact that Cyanamid had leased and filled the car that spilled the acrylonitrile; all she thought important is that Cyanamid introduced the product into the stream of commerce that happened to pass through the Chicago metropolitan area. Her concession may have been incautious. One might want to distinguish between the shipper who merely places his goods on his loading dock to be picked up by the carrier and the shipper who, as in this case, participates actively in the transportation. But the concession is illustrative of the potential scope of the district court’s decision.

No cases recognize so sweeping a liability. Several reject it, though none has facts much like those of the present case. With National Steel Service Center v. Gibbons, which held a railroad strictly liable for transporting propane gas — but under Iowa law, which uses a different standard from that of the Restatement — we may pair Seaboard Coast Line R.R. v. Mobil Chemical Co. which refused to impose strict liability on facts similar to those in this case, but again on the basis of a standard different from that of the Restatement. Zero Wholesale Co. v. Stroud refused to hold that the delivery of propane gas was not an ultrahazardous activity as a matter of law. But the delivery in question was to a gas-storage facility, and the explosion occurred while gas was being pumped from the tank truck into a storage tank. This was a highly, perhaps unavoidably, dangerous activity.

Siegler v. Kuhlman also imposed strict liability on a transporter of hazardous materials, but the circumstances were again rather special. A gasoline truck blew up, obliterating the plaintiff’s decedent and her car. The court emphasized that the explosion had destroyed the evidence necessary to establish whether the accident had been due to negligence; so, unless liability was strict, there would be no liability — and this as the very consequence of the defendant’s hazardous activity. But when the Supreme Court of Washington came to decide the New Meadows case, supra, it did not distinguish Siegler on this ground, perhaps realizing that the plaintiff in Siegler could have overcome the destruction of the evidence by basing a negligence claim on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. Instead it stressed that the transmission of natural gas through underground pipes, the activity in New Meadows, is less dangerous than the transportation of gasoline by highway, where the risk of an accident is omnipresent. We shall see that a further distinction of great importance between the present case and Siegler is that the defendant there was the transporter, and here it is the shipper.

Cases that impose strict liability for the storage of a dangerous chemical provide a potentially helpful analogy to our case. But they can be distinguished on the ground that the storer (like the transporter, as in Siegler) has more control than the shipper.

So we can get little help from precedent, and might as well apply section 520 to the acrylonitrile problem from the ground up. To begin with, we have been given no reason, whether the reason in Siegler or any other, for believing that a negligence regime is not perfectly adequate to remedy and deter, at reasonable cost, the accidental spillage of acrylonitrile from rail cars. Acrylonitrile could explode and destroy evidence, but of course did not here, making imposition of strict liability on the theory of the Siegler decision premature. More important, although acrylonitrile is flammable even at relatively low temperatures, and toxic, it is not so corrosive or otherwise destructive that it will eat through or otherwise damage or weaken a tank car’s valves although they are maintained with due (which essentially means, with average) care. No one suggests, therefore, that the leak in this case was caused by the inherent properties of acrylonitrile. It was caused by carelessness — whether that of the North American Car Corporation in failing to maintain or inspect the car properly, or that of Cyanamid in failing to maintain or inspect it, or that of the Missouri Pacific when it had custody of the car, or that of the switching line itself in failing to notice the ruptured lid, or some combination of these possible failures of care. Accidents that are due to a lack of care can be prevented by taking care; and when a lack of care can (unlike Siegler) be shown in court, such accidents are adequately deterred by the threat of liability for negligence.

It is true that the district court purported to find as a fact that there is an inevitable risk of derailment or other calamity in transporting “large quantities of anything.” This is not a finding of fact, but a truism: anything can happen. The question is, how likely is this type of accident if the actor uses due care? For all that appears from the record of the case or any other sources of information that we have found, if a tank car is carefully maintained the danger of a spill of acrylonitrile is negligible. If this is right, there is no compelling reason to move to a regime of strict liability, especially one that might embrace all other hazardous materials shipped by rail as well. This also means, however, that the amici curiae who have filed briefs in support of Cyanamid cry wolf in predicting “devastating” effects on the chemical industry if the district court’s decision is affirmed. If the vast majority of chemical spills by railroads are preventable by due care, the imposition of strict liability should cause only a slight, not as they argue a substantial, rise in liability insurance rates, because the incremental liability should be slight. The amici have momentarily lost sight of the fact that the feasibility of avoiding accidents simply by being careful is an argument against strict liability.

This discussion helps to show why Siegler is indeed distinguishable even as interpreted in New Meadows. There are so many highway hazards that the transportation of gasoline by truck is, or at least might plausibly be thought, inherently dangerous in the sense that a serious danger of accident would remain even if the truckdriver used all due care (though Hawkins and other cases are contra). Which in turn means, contrary to our earlier suggestion, that the plaintiff really might have difficulty invoking res ipsa loquitur, because a gasoline truck might well blow up without negligence on the part of the driver. The plaintiff in this case has not shown that the danger of a comparable disaster to a tank car filled with acrylonitrile is as great and might have similar consequences for proof of negligence. And to repeat a previous point, if the reason for strict liability is fear that an accident might destroy the critical evidence of negligence we should wait to impose such liability until such a case appears.

The district judge and the plaintiff’s lawyer make much of the fact that the spill occurred in a densely inhabited metropolitan area. Only 4,000 gallons spilled; what if all 20,000 had done so? Isn’t the risk that this might happen even if everybody were careful sufficient to warrant giving the shipper an incentive to explore alternative routes? Strict liability would supply that incentive. But this argument overlooks the fact that, like other transportation networks, the railroad network is a hub-and-spoke system. And the hubs are in metropolitan areas. Chicago is one of the nation’s largest railroad hubs. In 1983, the latest date for which we have figures, Chicago’s railroad yards handled the third highest volume of hazardous-material shipments in the nation. East St. Louis, which is also in Illinois, handled the second highest volume. With most hazardous chemicals (by volume of shipments) being at least as hazardous as acrylonitrile, it is unlikely — and certainly not demonstrated by the plaintiff — that they can be rerouted around all the metropolitan areas in the country, except at prohibitive cost. Even if it were feasible to reroute them one would hardly expect shippers, as distinct from carriers, to be the firms best situated to do the rerouting. Granted, the usual view is that common carriers are not subject to strict liability for the carriage of materials that make the transportation of them abnormally dangerous, because a common carrier cannot refuse service to a shipper of a lawful commodity. Restatement, supra, § 521. Two courts, however, have rejected the common carrier exception. If it were rejected in Illinois, this would weaken still further the case for imposing strict liability on shippers whose goods pass through the densely inhabited portions of the state.

The difference between shipper and carrier points to a deep flaw in the plaintiff’s case. Unlike Guille, and unlike Siegler, and unlike the storage cases, beginning with Rylands itself, here it is not the actors — that is, the transporters of acrylonitrile and other chemicals — but the manufacturers, who are sought to be held strictly liable. A shipper can in the bill of lading designate the route of his shipment if he likes, (a)(1), but is it realistic to suppose that shippers will become students of railroading in order to lay out the safest route by which to ship their goods? Anyway, rerouting is no panacea. Often it will increase the length of the journey, or compel the use of poorer track, or both. When this happens, the probability of an accident is increased, even if the consequences of an accident if one occurs are reduced; so the expected accident cost, being the product of the probability of an accident and the harm if the accident occurs, may rise. Glickman, Analysis of a National Policy for Routing Hazardous Materials on Railroads (Department of Transportation, Research and Special Programs Administration, Transportation Systems Center, May 1980). It is easy to see how the accident in this case might have been prevented at reasonable cost by greater care on the part of those who handled the tank car of acrylonitrile. It is difficult to see how it might have been prevented at reasonable cost by a change in the activity of transporting the chemical. This is therefore not an apt case for strict liability.

We said earlier that Cyanamid, because of the role it played in the transportation of the acrylonitrile — leasing, and especially loading, and also it appears undertaking by contract with North American Car Corporation to maintain, the tank car in which the railroad carried Cyanamid’s acrylonitrile to Riverdale — might be viewed as a special type of shipper (call it a “transporter”), rather than as a passive shipper. But neither the district judge nor the plaintiff’s counsel has attempted to distinguish Cyanamid from an ordinary manufacturer of chemicals on this ground, and we consider it waived. Which is not to say that had it not been waived it would have changed the outcome of the case. The very fact that Cyanamid participated actively in the transportation of the acrylonitrile imposed upon it a duty of due care and by doing so brought into play a threat of negligence liability that, for all we know, may provide an adequate regime of accident control in the transportation of this particular chemical.

In emphasizing the flammability and toxicity of acrylonitrile rather than the hazards of transporting it, as in failing to distinguish between the active and the passive shipper, ultrahazardousness or abnormal dangerousness is, in the contemplation of the law at least, a property not of substances, but of activities: not of acrylonitrile, but of the transportation of acrylonitrile by rail through populated areas. Natural gas is both flammable and poisonous, but the operation of a natural gas well is not an ultrahazardous activity. Whatever the situation under products liability law (section 402A of the Restatement), the manufacturer of a product is not considered to be engaged in an abnormally dangerous activity merely because the product becomes dangerous when it is handled or used in some way after it leaves his premises, even if the danger is foreseeable. The plaintiff does not suggest that Cyanamid should switch to making some less hazardous chemical that would substitute for acrylonitrile in the textiles and other goods in which acrylonitrile is used. Were this a feasible method of accident avoidance, there would be an argument for making manufacturers strictly liable for accidents that occur during the shipment of their products (how strong an argument we need not decide). Apparently it is not a feasible method.

The relevant activity is transportation, not manufacturing and shipping. This essential distinction the plaintiff ignores. But even if the plaintiff is treated as a transporter and not merely a shipper, it has not shown that the transportation of acrylonitrile in bulk by rail through populated areas is so hazardous an activity, even when due care is exercised, that the law should seek to create — perhaps quixotically — incentives to relocate the activity to nonpopulated areas, or to reduce the scale of the activity, or to switch to transporting acrylonitrile by road rather than by rail, perhaps to set the stage for a replay of Siegler v. Kuhlman. It is no more realistic to propose to reroute the shipment of all hazardous materials around Chicago than it is to propose the relocation of homes adjacent to the Blue Island switching yard to more distant suburbs. It may be less realistic. Brutal though it may seem to say it, the inappropriate use to which land is being put in the Blue Island yard and neighborhood may be, not the transportation of hazardous chemicals, but residential living. The analogy is to building your home between the runways at O’Hare.

The briefs hew closely to the Restatement, whose approach to the issue of strict liability is mainly allocative rather than distributive. By this we mean that the emphasis is on picking a liability regime (negligence or strict liability) that will control the particular class of accidents in question most effectively, rather than on finding the deepest pocket and placing liability there. At argument, however, the plaintiff’s lawyer invoked distributive considerations by pointing out that Cyanamid is a huge firm and the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad a fifty-mile-long switching line that almost went broke in the winter of 1979, when the accident occurred. Well, so what? A corporation is not a living person but a set of contracts the terms of which determine who will bear the brunt of liability. Tracing the incidence of a cost is a complex undertaking which the plaintiff sensibly has made no effort to assume, since its legal relevance would be dubious. We add only that however small the plaintiff may be, it has mighty parents: it is a jointly owned subsidiary of Conrail and the Soo line.

The case for strict liability has not been made. Not in this suit in any event.

Indiana Harbor Belt R. Co. v. American Cyanamid Co., 916 F.2d 1174, 1176-1182 (7th Cir. 1990).

We hold, then, that the principle of Thomas v. Winchester is not limited to poisons, explosives, and things of like nature, to things which in their normal operation are implements of destruction. If the nature of a thing is such that it is reasonably certain to place life and limb in peril when negligently made, it is then a thing of danger. Its nature gives warning of the consequences to be expected. If to the element of danger there is added knowledge that the thing will be used by persons other than the purchaser, and used without new tests then, irrespective of contract, the manufacturer of this thing of danger is under a duty to make it carefully. That is as far as we are required to go for the decision of this case. There must be knowledge of a danger, not merely possible, but probable. It is possible to use almost anything in a way that will make it dangerous if defective. That is not enough to charge the manufacturer with a duty independent of his contract. Whether a given thing is dangerous may be sometimes a question for the court and sometimes a question for the jury. There must also be knowledge that in the usual course of events the danger will be shared by others than the buyer. Such knowledge may often be inferred from the nature of the transaction. But it is possible that even knowledge of the danger and of the use will not always be enough. The proximity or remoteness of the relation is a factor to be considered. We are dealing now with the liability of the manufacturer of the finished product, who puts it on the market to be used without inspection by his customers. If he is negligent, where danger is to be foreseen, a liability will follow. We are not required at this time to say that it is legitimate to go back of the manufacturer of the finished product and hold the manufacturers of the component parts. To make their negligence a cause of imminent danger, an independent cause must often intervene; the manufacturer of the finished product must also fail in his duty of inspection. It may be that in those circumstances the negligence of the earlier members of the series as too remote to constitute, as to the ultimate user, an actionable wrong.  We leave that question open to you. We shall have to deal with it when it arises. The difficulty which it suggests is not present in this case, There is here no break in the chain of cause and effect. In such circumstances, the presence of a known danger, attendant upon a known use, makes vigilance a duty. We have put aside the notion that the duty to safeguard life and limb, when the consequences of negligence may be foreseen, grows out of contract and nothing else. We have put the source of the obligation where it ought to be. We have put its source in the law.

MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co., 217 N.Y. 382, 389-390 (1916).

The general principle of law which underlies this case is well established. If a man bind himself, by a positive, express contract, to do an act in itself possible, he must perform his engagement, unless prevented by the act of God, the law, or the other party to the contract. No hardship, no unforeseen hindrance, no difficulty short of absolute impossibility, will excuse him from doing what he has expressly agreed to do. This doctrine may sometimes seem to bear heavily upon contractors; but, in such cases, the hardship is attributable, not to the law, but to the contractor himself, who has improvidently assumed an absolute, when he might have undertaken only a qualified, liability. The law does no more than enforce the contract as the parties themselves have made it. Many cases illustrating the application of the doctrine to every variety of contract are collected in the note to Cutter v. Powell, 2 Smith Lead. Cas 1.

The rule has been applied in several recent cases, closely analogous to the present in their leading facts. In Adams v. Nichols, 19 Pick. 275, the defendant, Nichols, contracted to erect a dwelling-house for plaintiff on plaintiff’s land. The house was nearly completed, when it was destroyed by accidental fire. It was held that the casualty did not relieve the contractor from his obligation to perform the contract he had deliberately entered into. The court clearly state and illustrate the rule, as laid down in the note to Walton v. Waterhouse, 2 Wms. Saunders 422, and add: “In these and similar cases, which seem hard and oppressive, the law does no more than enforce the exact contract entered into. If there be any hardship, it arises from the indiscretion or want of foresight of the suffering party. It is not the province of the law to relieve persons from the improvidence of their own acts.”

In School-dist. v. Dauchy, 25 Conn. 530, the defendant contracted to build and complete a school-house. When nearly finished, the building was struck by lightning, and consumed by the consequent fire, and the defendant refused to rebuild, although plaintiffs offered to allow him such further time as should be necessary. It was held that this non-performance was not excused by the destruction of the building. The court thus state the rule: “If a person promise absolutely, without exception or qualification, that a certain thing shall be done by a given time, or that a certain event shall take place, and the thing to be done, or the event, is neither impossible nor unlawful at the time of the promise, he is bound by his promise, unless the performance, before that time, becomes unlawful.”

School Trustees v. Bennett, 3 Dutcher 513, is almost identical, in its material facts, with the present case. The contractors agreed to build and complete a school-house, and find all materials therefor, according to specifications annexed to the contract; the building to be located on a lot owned by plaintiff, and designated in the contract. When the building was nearly completed it was blown down by a sudden and violent gale of wind. The contractors again began to erect the building, when it fell, solely on account of the soil on which it stood having become soft and miry, and unable to sustain the weight of the building; although, when the foundations were laid, the soil was so hard as to be penetrated with difficulty by a pickax, and its defects were latent. The plaintiff had a verdict for the amount of the installments paid under the contract as the work progressed. The verdict was sustained by the supreme court, which held that the loss, although arising solely from a latent defect in the soil, and not from a faulty construction of the building, must fall on the contractor.

In the opinion of the court, the question is fully examined, many cases are cited, and the rule is stated “that where a party by his own contract creates a duty or charge upon himself he is bound to make it good if he may, notwithstanding any accident by inevitable necessity, because he might have provided against it by his contract. * * * If, before the building is completed or accepted, it is destroyed by fire or other casualty, the loss falls upon the builder; he must rebuild. The thing may be done, and he has contracted to do it. * * * No matter how harsh and apparently unjust in its operation the rule may occasionally be, it cannot be denied that it has its foundations in good sense and inflexible honesty. He that agrees to do an act should do it, unless absolutely impossible. He should provide against contingencies in his contract. Where one of two innocent persons must sustain a loss, the law casts it upon him who has agreed to sustain it; or, rather, the law leaves it where the agreement of the parties has put it. * * * Neither the destruction of the incomplete building by a tornado, nor its falling by a latent softness of the soil, which rendered the foundation insecure, necessarily prevented the performance of the contract to build, erect, and complete this building for the specified price. It can still be done, for aught that was opened to the jury as a defense, and overruled by the court.”

In Dermott v. Jones, 2 Wall. 1, 17 L. Ed. 762, the foundation of the building sank, owing to a latent defect in the soil, and the owner was compelled to take down and rebuild a portion of the work. The contractor having sued for his pay, it was held that the owner might recoup the damages sustained by his deviation from the contract. The court refer with approval to the cases cited, and say: “The principle which controlled them rests upon a solid foundation of reason and justice. It regards the sanctity of contracts. It requires a party to do what he has agreed to do. If unexpected impediments lie in the way, and a loss ensue, it leaves the loss where the contract places it. If the parties have made no provision for a dispensation, the rule of law gives none. It does not allow a contract fairly made to be annulled, and it does not permit to be interpolated what the parties themselves have not stipulated.”

Stees v. Leonard, 20 Minn. 494, 503-507 (1974 Minn.).

The basic principles supporting the Fletcher [Strict Liability] doctrine, we think, control the transportation of gasoline as freight along the public highways the same as does the impounding of waters and for largely the same reasons.

In many respects, hauling gasoline as freight is no more unusual, but more dangerous, than collecting water. When gasoline is carried as cargo–as distinguished from fuel for the carrier vehicle–it takes on uniquely hazardous characteristics, as does water impounded in large quantities. Dangerous in itself, gasoline develops even greater potential for harm when carried as freight–extraordinary dangers deriving from sheer quantity, bulk and weight, which enormously multiply its hazardous properties. And the very hazards inhering from the size of the load, its bulk or quantity and its movement along the highways presents another reason for application of the Fletcher v. Rylands rule not present in the impounding of large quantities of water–the likely destruction of cogent evidence from which negligence or want of it may be proved or disproved. It is quite probable that the most important ingredients of proof will be lost in a gasoline explosion and fire. Gasoline is alwasy dangerous whether kept in large or small quantities because of its volatility, inflammability and explosiveness. But when several thousand gallons of it are allowed to spill across a public highway–that is, if, while in transit as freight, it is not kept impounded–the hazards to third persons are so great as to be almost beyond calculation. As a consequence of its escape from impoundment and subsequent explosion and ingnition, the evidence in a very high percentage of instances will be destroyed, and the reasons for and causes contributing to its escape will quite likely be lost in the searing flames and explosions.

That this is a sound case for the imposition of a rule of strict liability finds strong support in Professor Cornelius J. Peck’s analysis in Negligence and Liability Without Fault in Tort Law, 46 Wash. L. Rev. 225 (1971). Pointing out that strict liability was imposed at common law prior to Fletcher v. Rylands, that study shows the application of a rule of strict liability in a number of instances, i.e., for harm done by trespassing animals; on a bona fide purchaser of stolen goods to their true owner; on a bailee for the misdelivery of bailed property regardless of his good faith or negligence; and on innkeepers and hotels at common law. But there are other examples of strict liability: The Supreme Court of Minnesota, for example, imposed liability without fault for damage to a dock inflicted by a ship moored there during a storm. Vincent v. Lake Erie Transp. Co., 109 Minn. 456, 124 N.W. 221 (1910).

The rule of strict liability rests not only upon the ultimate idea of rectifying a wrong and putting the burden where it should belong as a matter of abstract justice, that is, upon the one of the two innocent parties whose acts instigated or made the harm possible, but it also rests on problems of proof.

Thus, the reasons for applying a rule of strict liability obtain in this case. We have a situation where a highly flammable, volatile and explosive substance is being carried at a comparatively high rate of speed, in great and dangerous quantities as cargo upon the public highways, subject to all of the hazards of high-speed traffic, multiplied by the great dangers inherent in the volatile and explosive nature of the substance, and multiplied again by the quantity and size of the load. Then we have the added dangers of ignition and explosion generated when a load of this size, that is, about 5,000 gallons of gasoline, breaks its container and, cascading from it, spreads over the highway so as to release an invisible but highly volatile and explosive vapor above it.

Danger from great quantities of gasoline spilled upon the public highway is extreme and extraordinary, for any spark, flame or appreciable heat is likely to ignite it. The incandescent filaments from a broken automobile headlight, a spark from the heat of a tailpipe, a lighted cigarette in the hands of a driver or passenger, the hot coals from a smoker’s pipe or cigar, and the many hot and sparking spots and units of an automobile motor from exhaust to generator could readily ignite the vapor cloud gathered above a highway from 5,000 gallons of spilled gasoline. Any automobile passing through the vapors could readily have produced the flames and explosions which killed the young woman in this case and without the provable intervening negligence of those who loaded and serviced the carrier and the driver who operated it. Even the most prudent and careful motorist, coming unexpectedly and without warning upon this gasoline pool and vapor, could have driven into it and ignited a holocaust without knowledge of the danger and without leaving a trace of what happened to set off the explosion and light the searing flames.

Siegler v. Kuhlman, 502 P.2d 1181, 1184-1186 (Wash. 1972).

The plaintiff, though free from all blame on his part, must bear the loss, unless he can establish that it was the consequence of some default for which the defendants are responsible.  The question of law therefore arises, what is the obligation which the law casts on a person who, like the defendants, lawfully brings on his land something which though harmless whilst it remains there, will naturally do mischief if it escapes out of his land.

We think that the true rule of law is, that the person who, for his own purposes, brings on his land and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it in at his peril, and if he does not do so, is prima facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape.  He can excuse himself by showing that the escape was owing to the plaintiff’s default; or perhaps that the escape was the consequence of vis major or the act of God; but as nothing of this sort exists here, it is unnecessary to inquire what would be sufficient.  The general rule as above stated seems on principle just.  The person whose grass or corn is eaten down by the escaping cattle of his neighbor, or whose mine is flooded by the water from his neighbour’s reservoir, or whose cellar is invaded by the filth of his neighbor’s privy, or whose habitation is made unhealty by the fumes and noisome vapours of his neighbour’s alkali works, is damnified without any fault of his own; and it seems but reasonable and just that the neighbour who has brought something on his own property (which was not naturally there), harmless to othersso long as it is confined to his own property, but which he knows will be mischievous if it gets on his neighbour’s, should be obliged to make good the damage which ensues if he does not succeed in confining it to his own property.  But for his act in bringing it there no mischief could have accrued, and it seems but just that he should at his peril keep it there so that no mischief may accrue; or answer for the natural and anticipated consequence.  And upon authority this we think is established to be the law, whether the things so brought be beasts, or water, or filth, or stenches.

Rylands v. Fletcher, 37 L.J. Ex. 161 (1868).