Rylands v. Fletcher, 1868 LR 3 HL 330
Facts: In 1860, John Rylands paid contractors to build a reservoir on his land, intending that it should supply the Ainsworth Mill with water. Rylands played no active role in the construction, instead contracted out to a competent engineer. While building it, the contractors discovered a series of old coal shafts and passages under the land filled loosely with soil and debris, which joined up with Thomas Fletcher’s adjoining mine. Rather than blocking these shafts up, the contractors left them. On 11th December, 1860, shortly after being filled for the first time, Rylands’s reservoir burst and flooded Fletcher’s mine, the Red House Colliery, causing £937 worth of damage. Fletcher pumped the water out, but on 17th April, 1861 his pump burst, and the mine again began to flood. At this point a mines inspector was brought in, and the sunken coal shafts were discovered. Fletcher brought a claim against John Rylands, the owner, and Jehu Horrocks, the manager of Rylands’s reservoir on 4th November, 1861.
The case then went to the Exchequer of Pleas, where it was heard between 3rd and 5th May, 1865. It was heard on two points. Firstly, whether the defendants were liable for the actions of the contractors and secondly, whether the defendants were liable for the damage regardless of their lack of negligence. They decided for the first point that the defendants were not liable, but were more split on the second point. Pollock CB, Martin B and Channell B held that the defendants were not liable, since a negligence claim could not be brought as there was no valid case. Bramwell B, dissenting, argued that the claimant had the right to enjoy his land free of interference from water, and that as a result the defendant was guilty of trespass and the commissioning of a nuisance. He stated that “the general law in matters wholly independent of contract” should be that the defendants were liable, “on the plain ground that the defendants have caused water to flow into the claimant’s mines, which but for the defendant’s act would not have gone there”.
Fletcher appealed to the Exchequer Chamber of six judges. The prior decision was overturned in favour of the appellant Fletcher. Blackburn J 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 purpose 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 showing 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 exists here, it is unnecessary to inquire what excuse would be sufficient.
It was held that the tort of trespass was inapplicable, because the law at the time did not classify one-off events as “trespass”; an action was instead taken under the tort of nuisance. The case was first heard by Mellor J and a special jury in September 1862 at the Liverpool Assizes; a court order led to an arbitrator from the Exchequer of Pleas being appointed in December 1864. The arbitrator decided that the contractors were liable for negligence, since they had known about the old mine shafts. Rylands, however, had no way of knowing about the mine shafts and so was not.
The House of Lords dismissed the appeal and agreed with the determination for Fletcher. 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 case was then heard by the House of Lords on 6th and 7th July, 1868, with a judgment delivered on 17th July. Oddly the court consisted of only two judges, Lord Cairns and Lord Cranworth; Lord Colonsay failed to attend. The eventual judgment confirmed Blackburn’s decision and general principle, adding a requirement that the use be “non-natural”.