TORT 2.2A STRICT LIABILITY (RYLANDS V FLETCHER)
In Rylands V Fletcher, the defendant employed an independent contractor to build a reservoir on his land. While working, the contractors discovered a series of coal shafts (which unknown to them linked to the plaintiff’s land) which were loosely covered by debris, they did not block these coal shafts properly. The reservoir burst and flooded the neighbouring mine which was run by Fletcher. This situation/wrong did not fall under any existing tort.
This is the rule (quoted but somehow summarised):
Note that you should try and quote it in exams in the introductory parts.
A person, who for his own purpose brings on his land and (or) collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, must keep it at his peril, if he does not do so, he is prima facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of the thing’s escape-Blackburn J, (speaking on behalf of the judges) in the Ryland V Fletcher Case
At the Court of Appeal, Lord Cairns added that the thing which escapes must be a non-natural user of the defendant’s land.
Simply put; Rylands V Fletcher generally established strict liability for damage which occur from escape of tangible things from a defendant’s land.
The following elements can be deduced from the foregoing:
- The defendant must have brought/accumulated (or authorised the bringing/accumulation) of a deleterious substance on his land: Where he did not bring it into/accumulate it in his land, then no liability-Giles v. Walker.
- The thing brought onto the land must have escaped. In Read V Lyons inability to prove escape from the defendant’s premises was fatal to the plaintiff’s claim. Similar position in Hunter v. Canary Wharf. In Pointing V Noakes where the claimant’s horse stretched over the defendant’s fence and ate leaves from his yew (poisonous) tree and died… held, no escape. But on similar facts in Crowhurst V Amersham Burial Board court found escape because the yew tree overstretched the defendant’s land into the plaintiff’s. See also; Hale V Jennings, Powell V Fall and Midwood V Manchester, where in these cases, the plaintiffs were successful in proving escape.
:: Note however; Umudje v. SPDCN Ltd which distinguishes diversion from escape. Here, the defendants diverted a natural stream away from the plaintiff’s fishery and spilled some oil into his land. The defendants were held strictly liable for the spillage but not the diversion.
- The defendant would be liable for damages caused by the escape (NEPA v. Ali): provided the plaintiff is able to prove the damages/injury which may include (but not usually granted for-(Read V Lyons)) personal injuries-Hale V
- The thing brought upon the defendant’s land must be a NON-NATURAL USER.
From the interpretation of NEPA V Ali, the dictum of Lord Mutton in Rickards V Lothian, Rouse V Gravelworks, and a host of other cases over the years, Non-Natural use means the defendant bringing and keeping/accumulating a thing upon his land in a way no reasonable man ordinarily would. I.e.outside the normal daily usage and practice of mankind at a particular time as such can have adverse effects if mishandled.
Look at this instance; installing a water system and putting a tank to supply the house, having cooking gas, fuel gallon in garage, installing electricity in house, having a swimming pool, planting trees, etc. are natural uses/users. However it can become non-natural if instead of a swimming pool, you corner a whole stream into your house, instead of a gallon of petrol, you park a full trailer of petrol in your compound, etc. An explosion of the full trailer would be devastating and liability (under Rylands V Fletcher) would arise if the explosion escapes from your house and affects neighbouring persons or properties. See Musegrove V Pandelis.
In determining what amounts to a non-natural use, the courts would consider the benefit of the activity, quantity of use, likelihood and gravity of damage. Taking note of the place and practice of mankind.