B1.11.6 Cambridge Water Co v Eastern Counties Leather plc


Cambridge Water Co v Eastern Counties Leather plc ((1994) 2 AC 264, 306) [1994] 2 WLR 53

This case is where the company sought damages against a tannery which had permitted perchloroethane to percolate into an aquifer, thereby rendering the water unusable for the purposes of public supply.

The Facts

Cambridge Water Co. purchased a borehole in 1976 to extract water to supply to the public. In 1983 it tested the water to ensure that it met minimum standards for human consumption and discovered that it was contaminated with an organochlorine solvent.

On investigation, it emerged that the solvent came from the Eastern Counties Leather plc tannery, about 1.3 miles from the borehole. Since the tannery opened in 1879 until 1976, the solvent it used had been delivered in 40 gallon drums which were transported by fork lift truck and then tipped into a sump. Since 1976, solvents had been delivered in bulk and stored in tanks. It was then piped to the tanning machinery.

There was no evidence of any spills from the tanks or pipes, and it was concluded that the water had been contaminated by frequent spills under the earlier system. Cambridge Water Co. claimed damages against Eastern Counties Leather plc alternatively for negligence, nuisance and under the rule in Rylans vs Fletcher.

The Decision

At first instance it was found that Eastern Counties Leather plc could not have foreseen this type of damage and, therefore, disallowed the claims in nuisance and negligence. Further, it was found that the actions of Eastern Counties Leather plc constituted a natural use of the land and consequently dismissed the claim based on the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher

Cambridge Water Co. Ltd. successfully appealed. Eastern Counties Leather plc then appealed to the House of Lords.

The House of Lords unanimously found that Eastern Counties Leather plc was not liable for the water contamination. The main issue was whether the foreseeability of the damage suffered by Cambridge Water Co. was relevant to a claim under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher. The Lords accepted the original finding that a reasonable supervisor employed by Eastern Counties Leather plc would not have foreseen that the solvent would leak from the tannery floors down into the water source. It was thought at the time that any spilt solvent would evaporate and that the only foreseeable risk was that if large quantities were spilt, someone might be overcome by the vapour.