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Rylands v Fletcher Case – Summary And Analysis

Introduction

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant.”- Anonymous

No matter how much confusing this quote may sound, back in the day it was used to describe the case of John Rylands and Jehu Horrocks v. Thomas Fletcher[1], popularly known as Rylands v Fletcher, perfectly. The case revolves around the principles of liability in tort law, and it became one of the leading cases of the English common law. Tort law is concerned with civil wrongs that usually require the payment of money as compensation for the damage caused to a person. This case developed the rule of strict liability in a completely new sense, and went on to provide ground for other cases as well.

Even though Rylands v Fletcher[2] case had a profound effect on the English courts, it was disregarded in many jurisdictions, such as Scotland and Australia, where the doctrine was extirpated. In England and Wales, however, the law remains valid; the cases of Cambridge Water Co. Ltd. v. Eastern Counties Leather plc[3] and Transco plc v. Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council[4] recognised that the rule is not an independent tort but is a sub-tort of nuisance.

Facts of Rylands v Fletcher Case

The defendant, Rylands, had a reservoir constructed on his land by independent contractors. The contractors were independently chosen, and apparently seemed competent to carry out the construction. When the construction of the reservoir was in process, the contractors came across some old coal shafts and passages that were beneath the defendant’s land. These passages were connected to a mine on another person’s land, i.e. the plaintiff, Thomas Fletcher, but the contractors discovered that they were filled with loose soil and earth. The contractors did not pay attention to them and continued to build the reservoir over the passages. When the reservoir was complete, it was filled with water.

On 11th December 1860, shortly after the water was filled in the reservoir, water caused the reservoir to burst and entered the passages beneath the reservoir. Consequently, the water reached the plaintiff’s land and burst through the mine on the land, the Red House Colliery, thus flooding them. Fletcher tried pumping the water out, but on 17th April 1861, his pump also burst, causing the mine to flood again. Ultimately, a mines inspector was called, and the coal shafts beneath the defendant’s land were discovered. Fletcher brought an action against Rylands as well as the landowner, Jehu Horrocks, on 4th November 1861.

Judgement of Rylands v Fletcher Case

The main issue in front of the court was that whether the defendant’s use of land was unreasonable and, as a result, whether he was liable to pay the damages to the plaintiff. The decision was given by the Court of Exchequer Chamber in 1866, and was later confirmed by the House of Lords in 1868.

The tort of trespass was found inapplicable because the flooding of the plaintiff’s property was not direct and immediate but incidental, and the tort of nuisance was disallowed since this was a one-time event, whereas nuisance is in continuity. Mellor, J, and a special jury at the Liverpool Assizes initially heard the case, in September 1862, which led to an arbitrator being appointed by the Exchequer of Pleas in December 1864. The arbitrator stated that it was the contractors who were liable for negligence, because they were aware about the existence of the shafts, whereas Rylands had no knowledge of them, thus freeing him of liability.

The case was then heard by the Exchequer of Pleas between 3rd and 5th May 1865, where two major issues were raised:

  1. Whether the negligence of the contractors made the defendants liable for the damage caused?
  2. Whether the defendants were liable in spite of no negligence on their part?

For the first issue, it was held that the defendants were not liable, but for the second issue, the opinions were split. The dissenting opinion was from Bramwell B, who observed that the plaintiff had a right of enjoyment of his land without any interference, and the water was an interference from the defendants, thus making him liable for the damages. It was the defendants who had caused the water to flow on the land of the plaintiff, and had their act not been so, there would have been no discontinuation in the enjoyment of the land by the plaintiff.

Thomas Fletcher then appealed to the Court of Exchequer Chamber, from which the final decision arrived. The decision of the Exchequer of Pleas was overturned, and the case was ruled in Fletcher’s favour. As stated by Blackburn J, who spoke on behalf of all judges, the reality of the rule of law is that a person, who brings or collects on his land anything that is likely to cause mischief in case it escapes, then he must do so at his own peril. Such a person brings that thing on his land for his own purposes, and he, prima facie, is responsible for the consequences that may arrive as a result of the escape of such thing. There can be exceptions if the escape is due to the plaintiff, or if it is due to vis major[5] or an act of God. But, since there is nothing of this sort that exists here, no excuse from the defendant would be sufficient. The general principle that comes to be just here is that a person who suffers loss because of the actions of his neighbour, whether it be the eating of his corn by the neighbour’s cattle, or the flooding of his mine by the water from the neighbour’s reservoir, or his residence made unhealthy by the fumes and vapours from the neighbouring land, is to be compensated as there is no fault of his own. And such neighbour is obliged to make good the damage caused to the person whose property is destroyed, in case he is unable to keep the mischief from being caused, even though the thing is harmless if contained in his own property.

Since the rule, as laid down in this case, had not been formulated then, Blackburn J’s view relied on several other torts, such as that of chattel trespass, the tort of nuisance, and the in-scienter action[6].

Rylands appealed to the House of Lords, but his appeal was dismissed. They stood in favour of Fletcher, and Lord Cairns, speaking for the house, stated that they agreed with the rule stated by Blackburn J, but added a limit to the liability which said that the land from which the mischievous thing escapes must be in use for a non-natural, inappropriate or unusual purpose. The case was heard on 6th and 7th July 1868 by the House of Lords, and the judgement was delivered on 17th July. Lord Cairns observed that had the defendants, being owners and occupiers of the land, been using the land for natural purposes, for which in the ordinary course of enjoyment of the land, there had been accumulation of water in natural quantities, and had the water escaped the land of the defendants under ordinary course of natural laws, then the plaintiff was not entitled to complain, and it would have fallen upon the plaintiff to guard his land from flooding. But here, the defendants were amassing unnaturally large quantities of water, which could not be termed as natural, and as an outcome of imperfection in their action, the water in the reservoir caused the plaintiff’s land to be flooded and his mine destroyed. The actions of the defendants resulted in injury to the plaintiff, making the defendants liable to compensate the plaintiff. In his opinion, Lord Cairns relied on the cases of Smith v. Kenrick[7] and Baird v. Williamson[8].

Importance of Rylands v Fletcher Case

The rule of liability as laid down explicitly in Rylands v Fletcher[9] is relatively new to English law as well. Emphasis has been placed on the enjoyment of private property in English law, and this rule only furthers its application. What was laid down, in this case, was that strict liability would be applied on defendants who gathered mischievous or dangerous things on their lands which caused damage to their neighbours, even though there was no wrongful intention or negligence on part of the defendants. If the defendants were not to be held for their actions in such cases, then it would become very difficult to place the liability. In law, there is a significant difference between things that are naturally grown or found on land and things that are gathered or accumulated artificially by the owner or occupier of the land. If a naturally occurring thing escapes the land and causes damage to another, it would not be regarded as negligence since it happened in the ordinary course of circumstances. Liability only arises when the land is being used for unusual or public purposes, such as keeping cattle or constructing a reservoir, which the owner has to keep in check on his own.

Exceptions

Like almost every other rule, the rule of liability, in this case, is attached with certain exceptions:

  1. If the escape was due to the plaintiff’s own actions and the defendant had no role to play in it.
  2. If the escape of the thing was due to an act of God.
  3. If the escape was due to an irrational or supernatural force, which is similar to an act of God but it takes into account all such events which could not have been apprehended beforehand, or events happening in rare circumstances.
  4. If the escape was due to an act of a stranger to the circumstances upon whom the defendant had no control and nor the defendant could have anticipated or controlled the situation created by the stranger

For this rule to be applicable, it is important that the use of land from which the mischievous thing escapes, be non-natural or apart from the ordinary sequence of things. If the land were as it would have been under ordinary circumstances, then the plaintiff cannot claim damages for any injury.

Criticism of Rylands v Fletcher Judgment

When the judgement of Rylands v Fletcher case came out, it faced criticism within England and Wales, along with facing opposition outside. Doe CJ, the Associate Justice as well as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the state of New Hampshire, USA, viewed the judgement as going against the necessary uses of land and obstructing the work of a man. The American interpretation mainly revolved around the judgement being economically harmful. In Canada, the case of Ernst v. EnCana Corporation[10] was inspired by the rule of Rylands v Fletcher. In Scotland, the principle was applied initially, in the case of Mackintosh v. Mackintosh[11], but it came to an end in RHM Bakeries v. Strathclyde Regional Council[12]. It was disregarded as being a heresy that had to be erased. In India, the rule became ineffective with the onset of time, and the Supreme Court, in M. C. Mehta v. Union of India[13], evolved the principle of absolute liability, leaving no loopholes to seek for big enterprises that caused extensive damage and escape from liability.

Overview of Rylands v Fletcher Case

The rule laid down, in this case, has wide implications. Therefore, whenever a similar case comes before the courts in England and Wales, the judges have to decide it keeping in mind the imposition of the rule as well as the application of exceptions, if any. The exceptions to this rule are not limited, but can be developed when a case is decided in the footsteps of Rylands v Fletcher. The law of 19th century England was stricter than today, hence the development of the rule. However, cases like these often put the existing laws in question and force the liability on the one who holds the responsibility of the wrongdoing. No matter how wide the application of this case may be, it is essential to hold the right people accountable for actions causing loss to the innocents.

FAQs on Rylands v Fletcher Case

What was the opinion of the House of Lords on the case of Rylands v Fletcher?

The House of Lords stood in favour of Fletcher, when Rylands appealed against the judgement of the Court of Exchequer, and Lord Cairns, speaking for the house, stated that they agreed with the rule stated by Blackburn J. Lord Cairns added a limit to the liability which said that the land from which the mischievous thing escapes must be in use for a non-natural, inappropriate or unusual purpose.

Why did the jurisdiction of USA disregard the rule of Rylands v Fletcher?

As per American interpretation, they believed that the doctrine would cause economic loss as it would restrict people from carrying out necessary economic activities on their lands due to reason of liability befalling upon them in case anything goes wrong.

Rylands v Fletcher imposes strict liability. Is strict liability relevant in the present scenario?

While strict liability may attach some exceptions, it is important to note that cases like Rylands v Fletcher are ever existing, which pose two situations: one where the defendant invites liability, and the other, where the defendant does not invite any liability. Strict liability is applicable in both the situations: the rule applicable in the first situation, and the exceptions applicable in the second. Just the wide implication of the rule cannot be the basis of disregarding the entire doctrine.

[1] [1868] UKHL 1: (1868) LR 3 HL 330.

[2] Ibid.

[3] [1994] 1 All ER 53.

[4] [2003] UKHL 61.

[5] A superior or irrational force.

[6] Intent or knowledge of wrongdoing.

[7] 55 S.W.2d 598.

[8] [1868] UKHL 1.

[9] Supra note 1.

[10] 2013 ABQB 537.

[11] [1886] SLR 23_471.

[12] 1985 SC (HL) 17.

[13] 1987 AIR 1086.

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Zara Suhail Ahmed

Zahra is a student at Aligarh Muslim University, pursuing a 5-year B.A. LLB course. Currently in her 4th year, Zahra opted for Law after completing most part of her schooling from Cambridge School, New Delhi. Zahra has interned under a few lawyers and firms, participated in various moot courts and similar events, and is proficient in research and written content. A strong believer that education is the greatest virtue, Zahra seeks to learn from every platform and individual, whether working alone or as a team. Although Zahra is keenly interested to pursue ADR (Alternate Dispute Resolution) as a career, she has kept her options open and is interested in examining the different career prospects that her profession has to offer. Zahra has diversified interests apart from her professional life as well. Not only a successful lawyer, but she also aspires to become a productive human being.