This article is written by Anushka Singh, a second-year student, pursuing BBA-LLB at Unitedworld School of Law, Karnavati University. This article analyses the case of Ryland v. Fletcher which established the rule of strict liability under tort law.
The principle of strict liability was first established in this case. Rylands v. Fletcher is an English tort law case. Strict liability is a term used to describe liability which is imposed on the defendant without proof of fault on his part.
Rylands v. Fletcher (1868) LR 3 HL 330
House of Lords-
- The Lord Chancellor (Lord Cairns)
- Lord Cranworth.
17th July 1868- House of Lords
Relevant Act/ Section
To bring action under Tort law for strict liability, established under this case, the following elements should be there-
- Accumulation of something that may cause mischief when released.
- For personal use
- Should de dangerous/ or cause mischief
- Escape of the said thing
- Non- natural use of one’s land
In 1860, Ryland wanted a reservoir on his land, to supply his mill with water. He paid contractors (competent engineers) to build the reservoir, therefore not playing any active role in the construction.
While building the reservoir, the contractors discovered old coal shafts and empty passages beneath the Rylands land adjoining Fletcher’s mine, which were filled loosely with debris and soil. Instead of blocking these shafts and passages, the contractors left them.
On 11th December 1860, after being filled with water for the first time, the reservoir burst and flooded the adjoining mines, the Red House Colliery. Causing damage to the mine in addition to Fletcher’s property. Fletcher bought a suit against Rylands on 4th November 1861.
Issue before the Court
- Was the use of Defendants land unreasonable?
- Should the Defendant be held liable for damages suffered by the Plaintiff?
In 1865, a trial Court decided in favour of defendants, stating that defendants were ignorant of the abandoned passages and mine shafts. Therefore, no negligence was committed by them.
In 1866, the Exchequers Chamber reversed the decision by lower court, J. Blackburn on behalf of the other five judges held that- when a person for his personal use, brings anything to his property that is most likely to cause mischief when escapes, must be kept at the owners peril and if it does escape and cause damage, the owner must be held liable.
However, the owner can take two defences stated as follows-
- The thing escaped due to the act of plaintiff
- Vis major
In 1868, the House of Lords in their judgement affirmed the decision of Exchequer Chamber, but Lord Cairns limited the scope of J. Blackburn’s statement by adding that this principle can only apply where the defendant is using his land for a non-natural purpose. Thereby shifting the emphasis from the flooding of mines to the decision of defendant to build a reservoir on land adjacent to coal mines.
Decision of the Court
The House of Lords held in judgment, affirming the Exchequers Chambers decision, stating that the Defendant’s use of the land was unreasonable, resulted in harm to the Plaintiff and was engaged in without proper caution. Therefore, holding the Defendant liable for damages done to the plaintiff.
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