Rylands v. Fletcher (1868), L.R. 3 H.L. 330; [1861–73] All
The rule in this case is the most-often quoted example of strict
liability. Basically it states that an occupier of land who brings
onto it anything likely to do damage if it escapes, and keeps that
thing on the land, will be liable for any damage caused by an
The defendant occupied land near to where the plaintiff
operated a coal mine. The coal seams extended under the defendant's
land. These had been previously worked but the tunnels and shafts
had been cut off and forgotten about. The defendant obtained
approval to construct a reservoir to provide water for his mill. The
water from this reservoir permeated the old coal shafts beneath and
flooded the plaintiff's mine. The defendant succeeded in the Court
of Exchequer. The plaintiff appealed to the Exchequer Chamber.
The issue was whether the law imposed an absolute duty upon an
occupier to keep a potentially dangerous substance on his land or
whether the occupier need take only reasonable and prudent
precautions to do so.
Blackburn J (delivering the judgement of the court): "the person who
for his own purpose brings on his lands […] anything likely to do
mischief if it escapes, must keep it at his peril and is prima facie
answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of
Liability under this rule is strict and it is no defence that the
thing escaped without the defendant’s wilful act, default or neglect
or even that he had no knowledge of its existence. The only defences
available to such an escape would be vis
major or to show that it was due to some fault of the
plaintiff (or a third person). (However, for the modern view, refer
Cambridge Water case.)
The decision in this landmark case created a new tort. The problem
was how to determine and limit the scope of the rule. What is a
Fletcher employed competent contractors to build a reservoir on his
land. During the work, the contractors discovered an old mine whose
shafts and passages connected with another mine on neighbouring land
owned by Rylands. The contractors did not inform Fletcher and did
not block up the shafts. When the reservoir was filled with water,
the water escaped from Fletcher’s mineshaft into Ryland’s thereby
Rylands sued on the grounds of Fletcher’s negligence. Fletcher
himself had not been negligent as he had no knowledge of the
existence of the shafts. He was not vicariously liable for the
actions of the contractors as they were not his employees.
The case eventually went to the House of Lords on appeal who upheld
the original judgement that Fletcher was liable in tort.
During the appeal Lord Cairns, in agreeing with the above statement,
added the qualification that the rule only applied to a
“non-natural” use of the land, and not to circumstances where a
substance accumulated naturally on land. The word “natural” has
since been extended to mean “ordinary”.
Contractors; A defendant was held to be negligent for the negligence
of his contractors.