Legal Principles and Key Points
- In the case of Rylands v Fletcher  L.R. 1 Ex. 265, it was held that a person who for their own purposes brings, collects, and keeps on his land anything likely to do mischief if it escapes, is prima facie (by default) answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape.
Facts of the Case
- In 1860, D made a reservoir for their mill in land adjacent to C’s land. C owned and operated a mine on their land and surrounding third-party lands running around and below the reservoir.
- While constructing the bed for the reservoir, five old shafts were discovered and filled with soil. It was unknown to D that these shafts connected to C’s mine.
- D employed a competent engineer and contractors when planning and constructing the reservoir, but reasonable care was not taken to ensure that the reservoir could bear the water pressure when considering the shafts.
- On 11th December 1860, after the reservoir was partially filled, one of the shafts beneath gave way and burst downwards. The water flowed into C’s mine beneath and flooded the entire workings.
- C was forced to suspend mining operations, and after unsuccessful attempts at renewal the entire mine was abandoned.
- Was D’s use of the land in constructing and filling the reservoir unreasonable, thus entitling C to recover damages?
Held by the Court of Exchequer Chamber
- Finding for C, that D’s use of the land was unreasonable and undertaken without proper caution, which resulted in harm to C.
- When a person in managing his affairs causes, however innocently, damage to another, it is obviously just that they should be the party to suffer.
- The coal under D’s land had been worked out, but this was unknown at the time when D directed to erect the reservoir. The water would not have escaped but for this latent defect in D’s subsoil.
- D selected competent engineers and contractors, and personally continued in ignorance of this defect. The persons employed by them became aware of the shafts, though they did not know or suspect that they were connected to the mine below.
- “We think that the 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 primâ facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape. He can excuse himself by shewing that the escape was owing to C’s default; or perhaps that the escape was the consequence of vis major, or the act of God; but as nothing of this sort exists here, it is unnecessary to inquire what excuse would be sufficient” .
- Some years ago, several actions were brought against some alkali works for alleged damages caused by chlorine fumes. The defendants proved that they erected contrivances by which the fumes were condensed…and they provided a body of evidence to prove that no fumes possibly could escape from the chimneys. However, the jury concluded that chlorine had somehow escaped and found for the plaintiff.
- No attempt was made to reverse the verdict arguing that the owners had taken every precaution which prudence suggested to keep those fumes in, or that they could not be responsible unless negligence were shown.
- Tenant v Goldwin held that the general rule of law is that one who keeps anything on his land must ensure it may not trespass on another’s land. There is no difference in this respect between chlorine and water; escape by either will result in damage, and the one who brings them there must ensure this does not take place.