Rylands v. Fletcher
Exchequer: 3 Hurl & C. 774 (1865), Exchequer Chamber:
L.R. 1 Exch. 265 (1866), House of Lords: L.R. 3 H.L. 330 (1868)
Rylands owned a mine. Fletcher owned a nearby mill.
Fletcher was trying to build a pond to supply water to the mill, but the
ground gave way, the water flooded Fletcher's property, and the runoff
flooded Ryland's mine. Rylands sued for trespass and damage to
The Trial Court (Court of the Exchequer), found for
Fletcher. Ryland appealed.
The Court of the Exchequer felt that to constitute trespass,
the act doing the damage must be immediate. In this case, the flooding damages was too indirect to count.
The Court also found that Fletcher had
been doing a legal act on his own land, and so he could not be held liable
unless he had reason to believe that his act would become a nuisance
or cause damage to people outside their land.
The Appellate Court (Court of the Exchequer Chamber)
reversed. Fletcher appealed.
The Exchequer Chamber Found that it made no difference
whether Fletcher acted willfully or not, he still caused a nuisance and
damaged Rylands' property.
If you bring a potential nuisance onto your land, and it
escapes, you are answerable to all damage that is the natural consequence
of that nuisance.
The Court found that this case was similar to
other cases where someone's livestock had broken free and eaten a
neighbor's crops. In cases like that, strict liability applies.
It is foreseeable that cattle will stray, but is it foreseeable
that the water might escape and flood a nearby mine?
The English Supreme Court (the House of Lords) affirmed.
The House of Lords found that if the water was natural
runoff, then Rylands had nothing to complain about, but if the water was
from Fletcher's intentional actions, especially if he was doing something
that the natural land wasn't capable of supporting, then Fletcher was
acting at his own peril.
It didn't come up in this case, but theoretically Rylands could have argued that there was some negligence
on the grounds of res ipsa loquitur.
The difference between res ipsa loquitur and strict
liability is that under res ipsa loquitur, the thing would not
have occurred without some negligence, but you don't have enough
details about what happened to determine exactly what the negligence
is. In strict liability, you have a very good idea of what
happened, but there doesn't seem to have been a negligent act.
Basically, this case said that, under British law, there is strict
liability for some tort claims. That's the opposite of the US case of
Brown v. Kendall (60 Mass. (6 Cush.) 292 (1850)), which said that, under US law, strict liability is not enough and there needs to be some fault (like negligence) to for their to be liability.