Rylands v. Fletcher

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Rylands v. Fletcher

Rylands v. Fletcher was the 1868 English case (L.R. 3 H.L. 330) that was the progenitor of the doctrine of Strict Liability for abnormally dangerous conditions and activities.

The defendants, mill owners in the coal mining area of Lancashire, had constructed a reservoir on their land. The water broke through the filled-in shaft of an abandoned coal mine and flooded connecting passageways into the plaintiff's active mine nearby. In 1865, the trial court found that the defendants were ignorant of the abandoned mine shaft and free of Negligence and decided the case in favor of the defendants.

In 1866, on appeal by the plaintiffs, the Exchequer Chamber decided to reverse the lower court and imposed strict liability on the defendants, but the case did not readily fit within the existing tort theories. No Trespass had occurred since the premises of plaintiff and defendants did not adjoin; therefore, the flooding was not direct, nor was it a Nuisance, since there was nothing offensive to the senses and the damage was not continuous or recurring. Justice Colin Blackburn, comparing the situation to trespasses involving cattle and dangerous animals, declared: "The true Rule of Law is, that the person who for his own purposes brings on his lands and collects 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." This language, frequently quoted, is often erroneously regarded as the "rule" of the case.

In 1868 the defendants appealed to the House of Lords, which decided to affirm the ruling of the Exchequer Chamber, but Lord Cairns sharply limited Justice Blackburn's broad statement. Lord Cairns ruled that the principle applied only to a "nonnatural" use of the defendant's land, as distinguished from "any purpose for which it might in the ordinary course of the enjoyment of land be used." Thereby he shifted the emphasis from the mere tendency of all water to escape to the abnormal and inappropriate character of the defendant's reservoir in coal mining country. Strict liability exists for harm resulting from the miscarriage of lawful activity that, considering its place and manner, is unusual, extraordinary, or inappropriate. As a result, water collected in household pipes or a stock watering tank or a cistern is a natural use, but water collected in large tanks in dangerous proximity to the plaintiff's land is not.

The same activity might be appropriate or normal in one location but not in another; therefore, the primary basis of liability is the creation of an extraordinary risk. A water reservoir is an inappropriate use of land in a coal mining area, but not in an arid state. Blasting creates unusual and unacceptable risks in the midst of a large city, but not in remote rural areas. If the activity, such as crop dusting, is appropriate to the area, strict liability exists only if the activity is conducted in an unusual or abnormal way.

Until 1947, the English courts had liberally applied the doctrine enunciated in this case. Whereas the rule was originally stated in terms of an "escape" of that which caused the harm, subsequent cases imposed no such requirement. The rule was also extended to cover personal injuries as well as property damage. In a 1947 case, however, the House of Lords refused to impose strict liability in favor of a government inspector injured in an explosion at the defendant's munitions plant on the ground that there had been no escape of a dangerous substance from the defendant's land. Two of the judges thought that the rule did not apply to personal injuries.

At first, U.S. courts generally did not apply the Rylands doctrine. Curiously, a number of cases spurning the "rule" rejected it in the broad form stated by Justice Blackburn, ignoring or overlooking the fact that the final formulation by Lord Cairns was narrower. Much of the earlier hostility to the rule was probably due to the strength of the fault ethic and to a desire to protect emerging industries. At present, a majority of U.S. jurisdictions accept the rule, in name or in fact. In comparison, however, to the English decisions, U.S. cases have been slightly less liberal in applying the rule.

Even where Rylands v. Fletcher is expressly rejected or narrowly applied, the same result can be reached by actions for absolute nuisance or trespass.

Further readings

Claus, C. Conrad. 1998. "Oregon's Development of Absolute Liability Under the Rylands Doctrine: A Case Study." Washington University Journal of Urban and Contemporary Law 53 (winter): 171–200.

Shugerman, Jed Handelman. 2000. "The Floodgates of Strict Liability: Bursting Reservoirs and the Adoption of Fletcher v. Rylands in the Gilded Age." Yale Law Journal 110 (November): 333.