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Rylands v Fletcher 1868 | Tort Law

Rylands v Fletcher (1868) LR 3 HL 330 is a landmark case in English Tort Law that established the principle of strict liability for the escape of dangerous substances or things from one's land. The case involved the flooding of a neighbouring mine due to the construction of a reservoir on the defendant's land.

In the case, the defendant, Rylands, employed independent contractors to construct a reservoir on his land. While constructing the reservoir, the contractors discovered old shafts and passages of an abandoned mine beneath the land. Despite attempts to block them, the shafts were not properly sealed, and when the reservoir was filled with water, it caused flooding in the neighbouring mine owned by the claimant, Fletcher.

Fletcher sued Rylands, claiming compensation for the damage caused by the flooding. The main issue before the court was whether Rylands should be held liable for the harm caused by the escape of water, even though he had not been negligent in the construction or maintenance of the reservoir.

The House of Lords, in its judgment, established the principle that when a person brings or accumulates on their land something that is likely to cause harm if it escapes, they will be held strictly liable for any damage caused when it does escape. This liability arises regardless of whether the defendant was negligent or at fault.

The court held that four key elements must be satisfied to establish liability under the rule in Rylands v Fletcher:

  • The defendant must have brought or accumulated on their land something that is likely to cause harm if it escapes. This can include substances or things such as water, chemicals, animals, or even artificial structures.

  • The substance or thing that escaped must be of a non-natural use. It should not be something that naturally occurs on the land or is commonly associated with the ordinary use of land.

  • The escape must be a direct cause of damage or harm to the claimant's property. There must be a clear link between the escape and the damage suffered.

  • The claimant must suffer some form of foreseeable damage as a result of the escape. This can include physical damage to property or economic loss.

It is important to note that the rule in Rylands v Fletcher is a specific exception to the general principle of negligence in Tort Law. It imposes liability based on the defendant's control and use of land rather than their failure to exercise reasonable care. The rule is limited to cases involving non-natural uses of land and does not apply to ordinary uses of land or natural occurrences.

Rylands v Fletcher has had a significant impact on the development of strict liability principles in tort law not only in England but also in other jurisdictions around the world. It is often cited as a leading case when analysing liability for the escape of dangerous substances or things from land.

You can learn more about this topic with our Tort Law notes.

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