Rylands V Fletcher

  • The landmark House of Lords ruling Rylands v. Fletcher (1868) LR 3 HL 330 created a new branch of English tort law. It established the principle that one is strictly liable if their non-natural use of their land causes damage to another person’s land as a result of dangerous objects originating from the land.


The defendants built a reservoir on their property using independent contractors. While digging, the contractors discovered abandoned mines, but they did not adequately seal them. They poured water into the reservoir. Water subsequently spilled into the plaintiff’s mines on the neighboring property through the mineshafts. At Liverpool Assizes, the plaintiff received a favorable ruling. The House of Lords upheld the Court of Exchequer Chamber’s ruling that the defendant was responsible.

Fletcher filed a negligence lawsuit against Rylands.The majority of the judges at the court of first instance decided in Rylands’ favor. In his opinion, Baron Bramwell contended that Rylands had violated the claimant’s right to peaceful enjoyment of his property and that Rylands had engaged in nuisance-creating activity.


Because the flooding was neither immediate nor direct, the Court of Liverpool ruled in favor of the defendant, concluding that there was neither trespass or nuisance. (as the flooding was not a continuous event, it is a one off event). A court order later appointed an arbitrator for the case in December 1864. By concluding that the defendant had no way of knowing about the mine shafts and hence could not be held accountable, the arbitrator also ruled in the defendant’s favor. However, the arbitrators declared the contractors accountable for their carelessness.

Rylands appealed to the House of Lords after being dissatisfied with the Court of Exchequer Chamber’s decision. The House of Lords denied the appeal but went on to provide a more detailed explanation of the strict liability rule and to impose some restrictions on it. The Court determined that in order for the strict responsibility rule to be applicable, the land from where the escape occurs had to have undergone modifications that would be deemed unnatural, strange, or inappropriate[ii]. As a result, “Non natural use of land” was added to the list of requirements for applying the strict liability rule.


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