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 mine.
  • 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.