Legal Principles and Key Points
- In the case of Cambridge Water v Eastern Counties Leather  2 A.C. 264, it was held that the need to show that the type of damage suffered was reasonably foreseeable (and not too remote) in general applies equally to cases based on negligence, nuisance and the Rylands v Fletcher rule.
Facts of the Case
- In 1976, C purchased property containing a borehole. C extracted water from here for domestic purposes, supplying about 275,000 people.
- In 1976, water was not typically tested for the presence of P.C.E. (a chlorinated solvent). P.C.E. testing was introduced in later years.
- Since 1879, D owned a tannery located 1.3 miles away from C’s borehole. Until 1991, D used chlorine compounds as degreasing solvents.
- Until about 1973, T.C.E. was D’s preferred solvent. After this time, P.C.E. became used with increasing frequency. During the process of replacing the P.C.E. supply, small quantities were split on the floor.
- C detected the presence of P.C.E. in the soil around the borehole. After testing, C found that P.C.E. concentration was many times higher than natural. C was forced to halt all operations involving this borehole.
- C performed an inquiry to determine where the P.C.E. had originated, leading them to claim it came from D’s tannery.
- Was D liable under negligence, nuisance, or Ryland v Fletcher (liable for consequences of storing a non-natural substance on their land and its ensuing escape)?
- Was the type of damage caused reasonably foreseeable by D, and if so, did it allow D to avoid liability?
Held by the House of Lords
- Finding for D, that it was not reasonably foreseeable to D that a P.C.E. spillage could contaminate a borehole so far away. The need to show foreseeability of harm of the relevant type by D could not be neglected.
- Even though storage of P.C.E constituted a non-natural use of D’s land, since C could not establish that the pollution which occurred was in the circumstances foreseeable, D could not be held liable under Ryland v Fletcher.
- The judge at first instance found that a reasonable supervisor would not have foreseen that such repeated spillages in small quantities would create an environmental hazard or damage. The reasonable assumption would be that any spillage would evaporate rapidly in the air.
- Environmental protection is now considered crucial to mankind’s future. However, this does not justify extending strict liability in the common law regarding such pollution. With legislation being implemented for this purpose, it is unnecessary and potentially undesirable to develop a principle achieving the same end.
- P.C.E. had travelled so far down beneath the tannery that it passed beyond D’s control. To impose strict liability, either under nuisance or under Rylands v Fletcher, reasoning that it had become reasonably foreseeable that P.C.E. may, if it escapes, cause damage, goes beyond the scope imposed under either of these heads of liability.
- “For the purpose of testing the point, let it be assumed that D was well aware of the possibility that P.C.E., if it escaped, could indeed cause damage…I cannot think that it would be right in such circumstances to exempt D from liability under the rule in Rylands v Fletcher on the ground that the use was natural or ordinary. The mere fact that the use is common in the tanning industry cannot, in my opinion, be enough to bring the use within the exception…I feel bound to say that the storage of substantial quantities of chemicals on industrial premises should be regarded as an almost classic case of non-natural use; and I find it very difficult to think that it should be thought objectionable to impose strict liability for damage caused in the event of their escape.” [309B].