Rylands v. Fletcher (1868)

IRAC Summary:

Issue: The issue in Rylands v. Fletcher revolves around whether a person who brings onto their land something likely to cause harm if it escapes is liable for any resultant damage, even if the person has not been negligent.

Rule: The House of Lords developed a new rule of strict liability for what came to be known as “ultrahazardous” or “non-natural” use of land. This rule states that a person who uses their land in a non-natural way, which increases the risk of potential damage to others, is strictly liable for any damage that occurs as a consequence of that use.

Application: In applying this rule to the facts, the Court examined whether the use of the land by the defendants, who had constructed a reservoir, was non-natural and whether the escape of water that caused damage to the plaintiff’s mines was a foreseeable consequence of that use.

Conclusion: The Court concluded that the defendants were strictly liable for the escape of water from their reservoir that damaged the plaintiff’s coal mines, as the collection of a large volume of water in a reservoir was considered a non-natural use of the land, and the defendants were responsible for the consequences of its escape.

Detailed IRAC Outline:

The central issue in this case is whether the defendant, Rylands, who had constructed a reservoir on his land, is liable for the damage caused to Fletcher’s coal mines as a result of water escaping from the reservoir. Specifically, the case questions whether liability should be imposed without proof of negligence on the part of Rylands.

The rule established in the case is that a 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 prima facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape. The rule is subject to exceptions where the escape is due to the plaintiff’s default, an act of God, the consent of the plaintiff, or the act of a stranger.


– Rylands hired independent contractors to build a reservoir on his land.
– The contractors discovered old, disused mines when digging but failed to seal them properly.
– When the reservoir was filled, water broke through the disused shafts and flooded Fletcher’s active coal mines below.

Application of the Rule:
– The non-natural use of the land: The collection and storage of a large quantity of water in an artificial reservoir on Rylands’ property constituted a non-natural use of the land.
– Foreseeability: It was not necessary for Rylands to have anticipated the specific manner of escape or the exact damage.
– Strict liability: The defendants were held strictly liable for the damage, regardless of the care they took to prevent such an escape. This principle was based on the idea that a person who uses land in a way that is non-natural and potentially hazardous owes a duty to prevent harm to neighboring property.
– Exceptions: The court considered whether any of the established exceptions applied in this case, concluding that none did. The escape was not due to Fletcher’s actions, an act of God, Fletcher’s consent, or the act of a third party unconnected to Rylands.

The House of Lords held Rylands strictly liable for the damage caused by the escaped water to Fletcher’s coal mines. The construction and use of a reservoir were deemed non-natural uses of the land, and the subsequent escape of the water was a foreseeable risk associated with such use. The damage was a direct consequence of the failure to contain the water, and thus Rylands was responsible for compensating Fletcher for the resulting harm. This established the principle known as the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher, which has had a lasting impact on tort law.

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