Rylands v Fletcher

By:- Varshini R

JurisdictionIn the House of lords
Name of the caseJohn Rylands & Jehu Herrocks v. Thomas Fletcher
Citation[1868] UKHL 1, (1868) LR 3 HL 330
Date of the case17th July 1868
PetitionerJohn Rayland
RespondentThomas Fletcher
Bench/ judgesLord Cavins LL Lord Cranworth
Law involvedLaw of Tort

Abstract

The nineteenth-century decision of Rylands v Fletcher epitomises the continuing struggle between two opposing viewpoints of liability for industrial enterprises: strict liability based on the internalization of external costs, and a more laissez-faire fault-based approach. Subsequent confusion about the true nature of Rylands v Fletcher is due to the fact that the decision in fact contains two rules—a narrow one based on nuisance liability between neighbouring landowners, and a wider one based on liability for escapes from potentially dangerous activities. The uncertainties surrounding Rylands v Fletcher have resulted in a chequered history in common law jurisdictions.

Introduction

Rylands Vs Fletcher is one of the most famous and landmark case in tort. It was an English case in the year 1868 and was a progenitor of the doctrine of Strict Liability for abnormally dangerous conditions and activities. This case paved the way for the judgement of many more cases on nuisance and liability in case of negligence. Even if one is not at fault, he can be held liable for negligence. Strict liability states a person responsible for the damage or loss did occur to others by his or her activity without the concern of elements such as negligence, mens rea and any kind of remote liability.

Background of the case

Rylands v. Fletcher was the 1868 English case (L.R. 3 H.L. 330) that was the progenitor of the doctrine of STRICT LIABILITY for abnormally dangerous conditions and activities. The plaintiff was Thomas Fletcher and the defendant’s was John Rhylands. In the circumstances, the defendant had constructed a reservoir on land that was on leasehold, whose purpose was to supply water into his powered textile mill. Thomas Fletcher’s land neighbored that of Rylands. In his land, Fletcher operated mines and had excavated up to disused mines which were under the land where the plaintiff’s reservoir was located. The land that both parties were using had been rented from lord Wilton and the “activities that each carried out were legal”. Rhylands employed independent contractors and engineers to build a reservoir. When on duty the contractors came across some mine shafts that were no longer in use and which were loosely filled with marl and earth. The contractors “made no attempt” to fix the shafts. These shafts led through a series of interconnected shafts and channels, into the plaintiff’s (Fletcher) mines and land. After completion, water burst and flooded into Fletcher’s land and mines. In those circumstances, Thomas Fletcher sued John Rhylands.

Facts of the case

In 1860, Rylands paid contractors to build a reservoir on his land, intending that it should supply the Ainsworth Mill with water. Rylands played no active role in the construction, instead contracting out to a competent engineer. While building it, the contractors discovered a series of old coal shafts and passages under the land filled loosely with soil and debris, which joined up with Thomas Fletcher’s adjoining mine. Rather than blocking these shafts up, the contractors left them. On 11 December 1860, shortly after being filled for the first time, Rylands’ reservoir burst and flooded Fletcher’s mine, the Red House Colliery, causing £937 worth of damage. Fletcher pumped the water out, but on 17 April 1861 his pump burst, and the mine again began to flood. At this point a mines inspector was brought in, and the sunken coal shafts were discovered. Fletcher brought a claim against Rylands and the landowner, Jehu Horrocks, on 4 November 1861.  Plaintiff sued in connection with the flooding of his mine.

Issues raised

  • Whether the defendants were liable for negligence themselves irrespective of the proof negligence on their own part, or on the part of anyone employed by them to make the reservoir?
  • Whether they were liable for the negligence of the contractor engaged by them to extract the reservoir?

Arguments of the plaintiff

The loss caused by the respondent is due to his negligent behaviour. He has the duty to take care of the things which is releted to his control. Even though the loss caused to the plaintiff is not intentionally, the respondent is liable for his negligent behaviour.

Arguments of the respondent

If the defendant is taking reasonable care and is maintaing it with the utmost care and if the escape of the dangerous substance, is due to a wrongful act of Third party/Stranger then the rule does not apply. The Plaintiff cannot claim for damages where the act is done by a stranger, i.e., one who is neither defendant’s servant nor the defendant has any control over him.

Related provisions

Nuisance :- It is an injury to the right of a person’s possession of his property to undisturbed enjoyment of it and results from an improper usage by another individual.

Act of God:- An Act of God is defined as a direct, sudden, insanely violent, natural, and irresistible act of nature, one which could not by any amount of care have been foreseen, or if it has been foreseen, could not be avoided by any amount of care by any individual.

Negligence:- It is the breach of a legal duty of care by the plaintiff which results in undesired damage to the plaintiff.

Act of the Third Party: The rule also doesn’t apply when the damage is caused due to the act of a third party. The third party means that the person is neither the servant of the defendant nor the defendant has any contract with them or control over their work. But where the acts of the third party can be foreseen, the defendant must take due care. Otherwise, he will be held responsible. Volenti non-fit injuria;-It means that if the plaintiff has voluntarily participated in an act, knowing it to be dangerous and risky, the plaintiff cannot sue the defendant in case any damage therein occurs.

Judgement

The trial court held that the defendants were not aware of the broken filled-in shaft of the abandoned mine which was the source of the flooding, and thus the defendants were not held liable for any damage caused to the plaintiff. The trial court, therefore, passed the judgment in favour of the Defendants.

On the appeal filed by the plaintiffs in 1866, the case then was put through to the Exchequer Chamber for its decision on the matter. The Chamber reversed the decision made by the lower court and held that ‘strict liability’ was imposed on the defendants. However, in making this decision, the term ‘strict liability’ in that period had no standing in the tort law. It did not fit into the tenants of Trespass, Nuisance, Negligence, etc. Thereafter, Blackburn J compared the offence to the offence of trespass involving cattle and dangerous animals and declared that any individual who knowingly keeps a dangerous article on their land, must do so at their own cost and consequence, and be prima facie answerable if such article causes any damage whatsoever. In 1868, when the defendants appealed to the House of Lords, the court reaffirmed the judgment of the Chamber, but with some minor adjustments. Lord Cairns ruled that the principle of Strict Liability as laid down by Blackburn J should only be applied to the ‘non-natural’ use of one’s land, as distinguished from ‘any purpose’ as mentioned in the previous decision. Lord Cairns shifted focus from the tendency of water to escape from the defendant’s land to the unnatural use of the defendant’s land of setting up a reservoir near a coal mine.

Concepts highlighted

In Box v Jubb , the reservoir was overflowed because a third party supplied a huge amount of water that drained down and damaged the plaintiff.

In Ponting v Noakes, the plaintiff’s horse died after it entered the property of the defendant and ate some poisonous leaves. The Court held that it was a wrongful intrusion, and the defendant was not to be held strictly liable for such loss

Sochacki v. Sas, the Court held that a fire in the fireplace is an ordinary use of the land and if this fire spreads outside the premises, strict liability as a concept would not be applicable therein. Greenock Corporation v Caledonian Railway [1917] AC 556. The corp. constructed a concrete paddling pool for children in the bed of a stream and obstructed the natural flow of the stream. Owing to a rainfall of extraordinary violence the stream overflowed at the pond and damaged the property of the plaintiffs. Held that the extraordinary rainfall did not absolve the corp. from responsibility and that they were liable in damages.

Conclusion

The case of Rylands versus Fletcher “laid the basis on which the person who has suffered can be bona fide to be remedied”. The person “who has suffered damage can be compensated if he can prove damage on his property”. At first, U.S. courts generally did not apply the Rylands doctrine. Curiously, a number of cases spurning the “rule” rejected it in the broad form stated by Justice Blackburn, ignoring or overlooking the fact that the final formulation by Lord Cairns was narrower. Much of the earlier hostility to the rule was probably due to the strength of the fault ethic and to a desire to protect emerging industries. At present, a majority of U.S. jurisdictions accept the rule, in name or in fact. In comparison, however, to the English decisions, U.S. cases have been slightly less liberal in applying the rule. Even where Rylands v. Fletcher is expressly rejected or narrowly applied, the same result can be reached by actions for absolute nuisance or trespass.