B1.11.5 Rylands vs Fletcher


The notion of Strict Liability is demonstrated in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher (1868), L.R. 3 H.L. 330; [1861–73] All E.R.

The ruling 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 escape.

Facts of the Case

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 Decision

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 its escape.”

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 (an Act of God) or to show that it was due to some fault of the plaintiff (or a third person).

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 ‘non-natural’ user?


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 causing damage.

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.