Rylands v. Fletcher

Rylands v. Fletcher

"Rylands v. Fletcher" (1868) [Note: The reason the case is called Rylands v. Fletcher when the plaintiff was Fletcher is that the rule was confirmed on appeal by Rylands at the House of Lords (a higher court), hence the original case name is reversed.] LR 3 HL 330 is a landmark English legal case in which the Court of the Exchequer Chamber first applied the doctrine of strict liability for inherently dangerous activities (on appeal by Rylands, the House of Lords confirmed the previous judgment but restricted the rule to a non-natural user of the land). It established a rule related to, though arguably distinct from, the tort of nuisance, the tort of cattle trespass, and the tort of escape of a domesticated animal which was known "in scientia" to have an inclination to harm. The so-called Rylands rule has in Australia become absorbed into the ordinary law of negligence with all the requirements of duty of care, tests of reasonableness of care, foreseeability, proximity, and considerations of contributory negligence.

The dispute in "Rylands" concerned escape of water onto neighbouring land. Later cases in which the "Rylands" test was applied involved the escape of all manner of wastes and materials, extending outwards to a broad range of inherently dangerous activities considered essential to modern life.

The application and interpretation of the Rylands rule has been an important step in the development of legal policy relating to modern industry, risk allocation, liability and negligence.


John Rylands constructed a reservoir on land he was renting to supply water to his steam-powered textile mill. Thomas Fletcher operated mines on nearby land and had tunnelled up to old disused mines which were under the land where Rylands' reservoir was located. Both parties rented land from Lord Wilton and both were engaged in lawful uses of the land. The lands were in Lancashire, in an area known for its mines. Rylands employed independent contractors and engineers to do the work of building the reservoir which was completed in December 1860. While excavating the construction site, the contractors came across some disused mine shafts which had been loosely filled with marl and soil. No attempt was made to seal these shafts. These shafts actually led, via a series of interconnected shafts and tunnels, into Fletcher's mines and land. Water from Rylands' reservoir flooded into Fletcher's mines on 11 December 1860, just days after completion of the reservoir and after it had been partially filled. There had been no excessive rains or local floods. Fletcher sued Rylands.

The case went through four Courts of increasing status, starting in the local Court of Liverpool Assizes (Summer Session) in 1861.

The Liverpool Court found in favour of the Plaintiff Fletcher on the basis of trespass and nuisance. Actions in the torts of nuisance and trespass were only available to those with a legal interest in land. Rylands successfully gained an order for the matter to be heard by the Court of Exchequer before three judges where the previous decision was overturned with two judges deciding for the Defendant Rylands. The decision was based on trespass requiring direct human involvement in the invasion of an interest (the quiet enjoyment of land), which required intent or negligence, and Rylands had been engaged in a reasonable and lawful act, with no ill-intent or negligence, and there was no nuisance as there is nothing offensive to the senses about water. Some legal commentators interpret this as a case of the victim being the one to bear the cost of the accident.

Fletcher took the matter to the Court of Appeal, being the Exchequer Chamber of six judges, in 1866 (L.R. 1 Ex. 265). The prior decision was overturned in favour of the appellant Fletcher. Justice Colin Blackburn spoke on behalf of all the judges and said,

"We think that the true rule of law is, that the person who for his own purposes brings on his lands and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it 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 shewing 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 exits here, it is unnecessary to inquire what excuse would be sufficient."

This ruling relied on the liability for damages to land available through the tort of cattle trespass and the tort of nuisance, as well as the "in scienter action", injury by a domesticated animal known to have a disposition to injure.

Rylands appealed to the House of Lords which dismissed the appeal and agreed with the determination for Fletcher, in 1868 (L.R. 3 H.L. 330). Lord Cairns, in speaking for the House of Lords, stated their agreement of the rule stated above by Justice Blackburn, but added a further limitation on liability, which is that the land from which the escape occurs must have been modified in a way which would be considered non-natural, unusual or inappropriate.

The torts being argued in the case were torts relating to the enjoyment of land, available to land owners (and lawful land users), and the most available outcomes from judgment were injunctions to stop the activity and / or payment of damages for injury to land. Damages for personal injury, or economic injury are other legal developments.

The issue before the Court was whether the doctrine of strict liability could be applied to inherently dangerous activities in the same way as was applied in nuisance and cattle trespass. Trespass was considered not to be an available cause of action as this requires a direct invasion of an interest (land, goods or person) by a person, and by 1860, for trespass to succeed, there was the need to prove culpability in the form of negligence or wilful intent. Fletcher argued that the doctrine of strict liability should be applied, that the peaceful enjoyment (i.e. interest) in his land had been invaded and Rylands should be liable for the damages caused by his inherently dangerous activity (that is, collecting a dangerous amount of water on his land which then "escaped" into the mine). Rylands argued that he was acting reasonably and lawfully on his land and thus should not be held responsible for a simple accident which resulted without any negligence or wilfulness on his part.


The Court found in favour of Fletcher and ordered Rylands to pay for all the property damage to the mine. The Court agreed that Rylands had a duty in maintaining the reservoir and of being liable for all harm caused by it with broad scope of liability (strict but not absolute) with the extent of defenses described above by Blackburn J and Lord Cairns.

In Perspective and Comments on its Passing

This case was a major development in modern law and has influenced many subsequent rulings. The changes in negligence law as a field of torts has in some jurisdictions incorporated the Rylands rule. In Australia as example, the High Court of Australia in "Burnie Port Authority v General Jones Pty Ltd" (179 CLR 520; 120 ALR 42) (1994) held that the rule in Rylands had been absorbed into the ordinary law of negligence with all the requirements of duty of care, tests of reasonableness of care, foreseeability, proximity, and considerations of contributory negligence.

In "Burnie", Mason CJ, Deane, Dawson, Toohey and Gaudron JJ said,

"The result of the development of the modern law of negligence has been that ordinary negligence has encompassed and overlain the territory in which the rule in "Rylands v Fletcher" operates. Any case in which an owner or occupier brings onto premises or collects or keeps a "dangerous substance" in the course of non-natural use of the land will inevitably fall within a category of case in which a relationship of proximity under ordinary negligence principles will exist between owner and occupier and someone whose person or property is at risk of physical injury or damage in the event of the “escape” of the substance."

In his dissent, McHugh J, (at CLR 594; ALR 96) wrote, "Rylands v Fletcher" has been “banished from the books”, with Brennan J adding, (at CLR 570; ALR 77) “another conquest in the imperial expansion of the law of negligence”. McHugh stated that, " [w] ith great respect to those who hold the contrary view, much more evidence, analysis and argument than was put before this Court in this case is needed before the Court can properly determine whether the rule in "Rylands v Fletcher" should be banished from the books. In the meantime, we should continue to apply the established rule."

Similar declarations are to be found in many other common law jurisdictions.Fact|date=February 2008

Relationship to economic and social transformation

This case occurred at a latter part of the intersection in history of the agrarian age and the industrial revolution. The agrarian age was also an age of land owners as people with rights based simply on their ownership "and enjoyment" of land (including voting, political, juridical, and legal rights). Since then, the economy in Britain and elsewhere has come to be more based on services, and the service industries including insurance, and rights in law are much more broadly based, not directly flowing from property interests. Insurance is oriented toward risk allocation and risk spreading. Much that may have occupied the time of courts is now administered by insurance companies who have agreements to withhold actions for negligence claims, as a major cost-saving strategy for all companies involved. Today, the majority of torts issues, including liability, are now processed mechanically as a matter of insurance policy Fact|date=September 2007.


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