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Case Analysis: Rylands v/s Fletcher

In cases of torts, the general rule is that the person who causes damage to other person either intentionally or via his negligence shall pay damages to the affected party. This rule however, if followed strictly leads to many problems. For example, if I bought an explosive material on my house to do some experiment and it explodes without my negligence or knowledge on its own.

Can I Be held liable? Surely not, as there was neither any intention to cause harm nor any negligence is there. Thus, his rule is somewhat absurd. To solve the issues caused by this rule, the House of Lords in Rylands v/s Fletcher propounded a new rule called as "Rule of Strict liability" or "No Fault Liability". According to this rule, a person can be held liable even there is no negligence on his part.

Case Name: Rylands v/s Fletcher - Citation: UKHL 1, L.R. 3 H.L. 330.
Judges: Lord Cairns and Lord Cranworth - Date of Judgement- July 17, 1868

Facts of the Case
The defendant, Rylands constructed a reservoir over his land for providing water to his mill via independent contractors. There were some old disused shafts under the reservoir which the contractors failed to notice. As a result these shafts remained unblocked. When the water was filled in the reservoir, it burst through the shafts and flooded the plaintiff's coal mines on the neighbouring land. Though there was no negligence on the part of the defendant, Rylands, the plaintiff, Fletcher sued the defendant for damages.

Issues:
  1. Whether there was any nuisance or not?
  2. Was the use of Defendant's land unreasonable and thus was he to be held liable for damages incurred by the Plaintiff?

Judgement
Court of Liverpool
The Court of Liverpool gave its judgement in the favour of defendant holding that there was neither any trespass (as the flooding was not direct and immediate) nor any nuisance (as the flooding was not a continuous event, it is a one off event). Later, in December, 1864, via a Court order an arbitrator was appointed for the case. The arbitrator too decided in favour of the defendant by stating that the defendant had no way of knowing about the mine shafts so he could not be held liable. The arbitrators however, held the contractors liable for their negligence.

Court of Exchequer of Pleas
The case afterwards went to Exchequer of appeals for hearing.

The Court heard this case on two issues:
  1. Whether the defendants were liable for the actions of the contractors
  2. Whether the defendants were liable for the damage regardless of their lack of negligence
The Court unanimously decided that the defendant was not liable for the actions of contractors but have mixed views on the second issue. While Pollock CB J. and Martin B J. held that the defendants were not liable as there was no negligence on part of defendant, Bramwell B. J. held that the defendant was liable as the claimant had the right to enjoy his land free of interference from water and it was the defendant's act (i.e. act of building reservoir) which actually caused flooding of water on claimant's land and thus held the defendant liable for trespass and nuisance.

Court of Exchequer Chamber
Aggrieved by the decision of Court of Exchequer of Pleas, Fletcher appealed to the Exchequer Chamber composed of six judges. The judges overturned the decision of Court of Exchequer of Pleas. It was in this Court where the rule of Strict liability was first time propounded.

Blackburn J. discussed on behalf of all Judges and stated that:
We think that the rule of law is, that the person who for his own purpose brings on his lands and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it in 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 own 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. [i]

Thus, the rule of strict liability was laid: that if a person bought any dangerous thing on his premises and if that thing escapes and cause damage, then the person would be held liable for all the damage it has caused regardless of his negligence, knowledge or intention. The Court however, also provided certain exceptions where this rule won't be applied i.e. Act of God, Plaintiff's own default. But as none of these exceptions are there in Rylands v/s Fletcher case, the Court held Ryland liable for the damage caused to Fletcher.

House of Lords
Aggrieved by the judgement of Court of Exchequer Chamber, Rylands went for appeal in House of Lords. The House of Lords dismissed the appeal but went further to explain the rule of strict liability more granulously and put some limitations on the rule of strict liability. The Court held that for the applicability of the rule of strict liability, it is necessary that the land from which escape occurs must have been modified in a way which would be considered non natural, unusual or inappropriate[ii]. Thus, "Non natural use of land" was made an essential for the applicability of rule of strict liability.

Current Status of Rule of Strict Liability
Through Rylands v/s Fletcher and many other later cases various developments took place regarding the rule of strict liability. While certain exceptions like Act of third party and Statutory authority were added to the rule, the pivotal conditions for the applicability of the rule were also clarified by Courts. The essentials for the applicability of rule of strict liability can be summarised as follows:
  1. Presence of Dangerous thing:
    The first essential requirement for applicability of rule laid down in Ryland V Fletcher is the presence of a dangerous thing. A person can be made liable only if the thing which he had collected or had bought was dangerous. What is dangerous may depend on facts and circumstances of the case. Some of the examples of dangerous things are: poisonous trees, explosives, noxious fumes, rusty wire, etc.
     
  2. Escape:
    Another requirement for the applicability of strict liability rule is the escape of dangerous thing bought by the defendant. "The thing must escape to the area outside the occupation and control of the defendant." If the thing did not escape and damage is still caused, the defendant then can't be held liable. For instance, if you bought an explosive material for doing some experiment in your home. While doing the experiment, the explosive material suddenly exploded and injured your co worker working with you. Here, you can't be held liable under the rule of strict liability as there is no escape of the thing outside your premises.
     
  3. Non natural use of land:
    The last requirement for the applicability of rule of strict liability is that the dangerous thing was brought in purview of non natural use of land. For the use to be non natural it "must be some special use bringing with it increased danger to others, and must not merely by ordinary use of land or such a use as is proper for the general benefit of the community"[iii] For instance, if you grow a tree on your land, it is natural use of land but if you grow a poisonous tree on your land, it is a non natural use of land as it bring with itself an increased danger to others.

Exceptions
However, in Ryland v/s Fletcher, certain exceptions were also stated in which rule of strict liability cannot be applied. Many other exceptions were also added in later cased.

The exceptions of the rule of strict liability can be summarised as follows:
  1. Plaintiff's own default:
    If the damage is caused by plaintiff's own default or wrongdoing then the rule of strict liability can't be applied. For instance, in Ponting V Noakes[iv], the plaintiff's horse itself intruded in defendant's property and ate poisonous leaves. The Court held that as the damage is caused by plaintiff's own fault as he let his horse intrude into the property of defendant (either purposely or via negligence). Had the horse not intruded into the property of plaintiff, the damage would not have been caused. Hence, the court held that in this case the plaintiff didn't have any right to complaint.
     
  2. Act of God:
    The term "Act of God' has been defined by Blackburn J. in Rylands V Fletcher. According to him "Circumstances which no human foresight can provide against, and of which human prudence is not bound to recognize the possibility" are called Act of God. The same can be understood via reference of Nichols V Marsland[v], in which the defendant created artificial lakes on his land. But that year, there happened to be an extraordinary rainfall, highest in human memory, as a result of which embankments of lakes gave away and damaged plaintiff's four bridges. The Court held that the defendant was not guilty as it was an act of god as it was totally unforeseen and had happened because of supernatural forces without any human intervention.
     
  3.  Consent of the Plaintiff:
    According to this exception, if the plaintiff has consented to the accumulation of dangerous thing on the defendant's land, then the plaintiff does not have any right of complaint and the rule of strict liability could not be applied. It s similar to the rule of volenti non fit injuria. The consent of the plaintiff can be express or implied. The consent is express, when the plaintiff assertively gives his consent. For example, A and B lives in the same house.

    A wants plant a poisonous tree in the house for research purpose and ask B if he is OK with that. B agrees. Here, the consent given is express. On the other hand consent can also be implied. Strictly talking of strict liability, consent is implied when the source of danger is for the 'common benefit' of both plaintiff and defendant. For instance, in Carstairs V Taylor[vi], the plaintiff hired ground floor of defendant's house on rent.

    There happened to be a water tank on the roof for supply of water. One day, the water from the tank leaked and damaged plaintiff's goods. It was held that the defendant's can't be held liable as plaintiff impliedly had consented to the accumulation of dangerous thing (as the thing was installed for the common benefit of both plaintiff and defendant).
     
  4. Act of third party:
    If the damages has been caused by the act of a third party or stranger over whom defendant has no control, then rule of strict liability can't be applied. For instance, in Box V Jubb[vii], some strangers blocked the drain of defendant's reservoir as a result of which the reservoir overflowed and damaged plaintiff's property. The Court held that the defendant could not be held liable as the damage has been caused by the act of stranger.

    It must be noted that if the act of stranger can be foreseen and prevented by the defendant, then the defendant has a duty to stop it. Failure on part of defendant to do so would make him liable.
     
  5. Statutory Authority:
    If the damage has been caused by an act which the legislature authorizes then; the rule of strict liability can't be applied. For example. If a railway line is constructed by a Statute and some damage is caused by it, then the person can't use the rule of strict liability. In Green V Chelsea Waterworks Co[viii], the defendant company had a statutory duty to maintain continuous supply of water. A main belonging to the Company burst without any negligence on its part, as a consequence of which the plaintiff's premises were flooded with water. It was held that the company was not liable as the company was engaged in performing a statutory duty.
     

Important Cases cited
Cases in favour of defendant
  1. Smith v/s Kenrick [ix]:
    In this case, the plaintiff and defendant used to mine on the adjacent land. The defendant dug holes in the ordinary course of mining as a result of which, the water flowed from the defendant's mine into the plaintiff's mine by gravitation and caused damage. It was held that the defendant was not liable as "each owner had a right to work in his own mine in the best way for his benefit and if he did so without negligence, he was not liable to other for prejudice to his property which might thereby arise.
     
  2. Chadwick v/s Trover [x]:
    In this case, a man pulled down his own wall without giving notice to his neighbour(as he was not legally bound to do so) and thereby caused damage to the latter's underground wall of which the defendant had no knowledge. It was held that the man was not liable as there was no knowledge present on his part that by doing so he would cause damage to other party.
     
  3. Partridge v/s Seott [xi]:
    In this case, the defendant employed some competent persons to perform a lawful act. But some damage to plaintiff due to the negligence of the employed ones. It was held that the people who actually had done the work alone were liable.
     
Cases in Favour of the Plaintiff:
  1. Smith V Kenrick [xii]:
    It was held that though if no negligence is there on the part of defendant in causing damage to the property but if the injury was occasioned by something which was not ordinary or natural use of the land then, the defendant shall be held liable for the damages.
     
  2. Baird V Williamson [xiii]:
    In this case the parties were neighbours and used to work on adjacent mines. The defendant raised his mine's water to a higher level via pumping, as a result of which the water flooded into the plaintiff's mine and caused severe damage. It was held that though the defendant was not negligent in performance of the Act, he was liable as it was in consequence of his act whether skilfully or unskilfully performed, that the damage has been caused.
     
  3. Hodgkinson V Ennor [xiv]:
    In this case, the defendant had polluted a stream by works on his own land which though were not illegal, were not the natural mode of working of the property and produced a mischief to his neighbour. The Court held that the defendant was liable and placed reliance on the maxim "SIo utere two ut alinum non laedas" i.e. one must use his property so as not to injure the lawful rights of another. The property owner may put his land to any use as long as he does not deprive the adjoining land owner of any right of enjoyment of his property. If he infringes any legal right of the latter then the former shall take responsibility for it.
     
  4. Lambert V Bessey [xv]:
    In this case the ratio which the court developed was that "if a man doeth a lawful act, yet if injury to another ariseth from it, the man who does the ach shall be answerable".
Conclusion
The landmark judgment of Rylands V Fletcher played a vital role in law of torts. The rule of strict liability propounded in this case has been instrumental in solving many disputes where the damage is caused without any negligence on part of defendant. In this fast changing world where industrialization and technological advancements are taking place rapidly, it is necessary that the owner who makes use of dangerous things shall be made onerous to bear the responsibility of every damage which that thing may cause.

The rule of strict liability helps us in achieving that objective. It places an additional burden on the owner to bear the responsibility of all catastrophes that may be caused by the dangerous thing he has bought. Moreover, it also ensures that every owner exercise proper care in handling such dangerous properties.

References:
  1. RK Bangia, Law of Torts 327 (Allahabad Law Agency, Faridabad, 2021)
  2. Rylands V Fletcher available at: https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110903100432998/ (last visited on February 10, 2022)
  3. Rickards V Lothiam, (1913) A.C. 263
  4. (1849) 2 Q.B. 281
  5. (1876) 2 Ex. D.1
  6. (1871) L.R. 6 Ex. 217
  7. (1879) 4 Ex. D. 76
  8. (1894) 70 L.T. 547
  9. 7 C. B. 515.
  10. 6 Bing. N.C.1.
  11. 3 M. & W. 220.
  12. Supra note 4
  13. 15 C.B. (N.S.) 376
  14. 4 B.&S. 229
  15. Pr.&Ag. 262

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