In cases of torts, the general rule is that the person who causes damage to
other person either intentionally or via his negligence shall pay damages to the
affected party. This rule however, if followed strictly leads to many problems.
For example, if I bought an explosive material on my house to do some experiment
and it explodes without my negligence or knowledge on its own.
Can I Be held
liable? Surely not, as there was neither any intention to cause harm nor any
negligence is there. Thus, his rule is somewhat absurd. To solve the issues
caused by this rule, the House of Lords in Rylands v/s Fletcher
propounded a new
rule called as "Rule of Strict liability
" or "No Fault Liability
". According to
this rule, a person can be held liable even there is no negligence on his part.
Case Name: Rylands v/s Fletcher
- Citation: UKHL 1, L.R. 3 H.L. 330.
Lord Cairns and Lord Cranworth -
Date of Judgement- July 17, 1868
Facts of the Case
The defendant, Rylands constructed a reservoir over his land for providing water
to his mill via independent contractors. There were some old disused shafts
under the reservoir which the contractors failed to notice. As a result these
shafts remained unblocked. When the water was filled in the reservoir, it burst
through the shafts and flooded the plaintiff's coal mines on the neighbouring
land. Though there was no negligence on the part of the defendant, Rylands, the
plaintiff, Fletcher sued the defendant for damages.
Court of Liverpool
- Whether there was any nuisance or not?
- Was the use of Defendant's land unreasonable and thus was he to be held
liable for damages incurred by the Plaintiff?
The Court of Liverpool gave its judgement in the favour of defendant holding
that there was neither any trespass (as the flooding was not direct and
immediate) nor any nuisance (as the flooding was not a continuous event, it is a
one off event). Later, in December, 1864, via a Court order an arbitrator was
appointed for the case. The arbitrator too decided in favour of the defendant by
stating that the defendant had no way of knowing about the mine shafts so he
could not be held liable. The arbitrators however, held the contractors liable
for their negligence.
Court of Exchequer of Pleas
The case afterwards went to Exchequer of appeals for hearing.
The Court heard
this case on two issues:
- Whether the defendants were liable for the actions of the
- Whether the defendants were liable for the damage regardless of
their lack of negligence
The Court unanimously decided that the defendant was not liable for the actions
of contractors but have mixed views on the second issue. While Pollock CB J. and
Martin B J. held that the defendants were not liable as there was no negligence
on part of defendant, Bramwell B. J. held that the defendant was liable as the
claimant had the right to enjoy his land free of interference from water and it
was the defendant's act (i.e. act of building reservoir) which actually caused
flooding of water on claimant's land and thus held the defendant liable for
trespass and nuisance.
Court of Exchequer Chamber
Aggrieved by the decision of Court of Exchequer of Pleas, Fletcher appealed to
the Exchequer Chamber composed of six judges. The judges overturned the decision
of Court of Exchequer of Pleas. It was in this Court where the rule of Strict
liability was first time propounded.
Blackburn J. discussed on behalf of all
Judges and stated that:
We think that the rule of law is, that the person who
for his own purpose brings on his lands 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. He can excuse himself by showing that the escape was owing to the
plaintiff's own 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. [i]
Thus, the rule of strict liability was laid: that if a person bought any
dangerous thing on his premises and if that thing escapes and cause damage, then
the person would be held liable for all the damage it has caused regardless of
his negligence, knowledge or intention. The Court however, also provided certain
exceptions where this rule won't be applied i.e. Act of God, Plaintiff's own
default. But as none of these exceptions are there in Rylands v/s Fletcher case
the Court held Ryland liable for the damage caused to Fletcher.
House of Lords
Aggrieved by the judgement of Court of Exchequer Chamber, Rylands went for
appeal in House of Lords. The House of Lords dismissed the appeal but went
further to explain the rule of strict liability more granulously and put some
limitations on the rule of strict liability. The Court held that for the
applicability of the rule of strict liability, it is necessary that the land
from which escape occurs must have been modified in a way which would be
considered non natural, unusual or inappropriate[ii]. Thus, "Non natural use of
land" was made an essential for the applicability of rule of strict liability.
Current Status of Rule of Strict Liability
Through Rylands v/s Fletcher
and many other later cases various developments took
place regarding the rule of strict liability. While certain exceptions like Act
of third party and Statutory authority were added to the rule, the pivotal
conditions for the applicability of the rule were also clarified by Courts.
The essentials for the applicability of rule of strict liability can be summarised as follows:
- Presence of Dangerous thing:
The first essential requirement for applicability of rule laid down
in Ryland V Fletcher is the presence of a
dangerous thing. A person can be made liable only if the thing which he had
collected or had bought was dangerous. What is dangerous may depend on facts and
circumstances of the case. Some of the examples of dangerous things are:
poisonous trees, explosives, noxious fumes, rusty wire, etc.
Another requirement for the applicability of strict liability
rule is the escape of dangerous thing bought by the defendant. "The thing must
escape to the area outside the occupation and control of the defendant." If the
thing did not escape and damage is still caused, the defendant then can't be
held liable. For instance, if you bought an explosive material for doing some
experiment in your home. While doing the experiment, the explosive material
suddenly exploded and injured your co worker working with you. Here, you can't
be held liable under the rule of strict liability as there is no escape of the
thing outside your premises.
- Non natural use of land:
The last requirement for the applicability of
rule of strict liability is that the dangerous thing was brought in purview of
non natural use of land. For the use to be non natural it "must be some special
use bringing with it increased danger to others, and must not merely by ordinary
use of land or such a use as is proper for the general benefit of the community"[iii] For instance, if you grow a tree on your land, it is natural use
of land but if you grow a poisonous tree on your land, it is a non natural use
of land as it bring with itself an increased danger to others.
However, in Ryland v/s Fletcher, certain exceptions were also stated in which rule
of strict liability cannot be applied. Many other exceptions were also added in
The exceptions of the rule of strict liability can be summarised as
Important Cases cited
Cases in favour of defendant
- Plaintiff's own default:
If the damage is caused by plaintiff's own default or wrongdoing
then the rule of strict liability can't be applied. For
instance, in Ponting V Noakes[iv], the plaintiff's horse itself intruded in
defendant's property and ate poisonous leaves. The Court held that as the
damage is caused by plaintiff's own fault as he let his horse intrude into the
property of defendant (either purposely or via negligence). Had the horse not
intruded into the property of plaintiff, the damage would not have been caused.
Hence, the court held that in this case the plaintiff didn't have any right to
- Act of God:
The term "Act of God' has been defined by Blackburn J. in Rylands
V Fletcher. According to him "Circumstances which no human foresight can
provide against, and of which human prudence is not bound to recognize the
possibility" are called Act of God. The same can be understood via reference
of Nichols V Marsland[v], in which the defendant created artificial lakes on his
land. But that year, there happened to be an extraordinary rainfall, highest in
human memory, as a result of which embankments of lakes gave away and damaged
plaintiff's four bridges. The Court held that the defendant was not guilty as
it was an act of god as it was totally unforeseen and had happened because of
supernatural forces without any human intervention.
- Consent of the Plaintiff:
According to this exception, if the plaintiff has consented to
the accumulation of dangerous thing on the defendant's land,
then the plaintiff does not have any right of complaint and the
rule of strict liability could not be applied. It s similar to
the rule of volenti non fit
injuria. The consent of the plaintiff can be express or implied. The consent is
express, when the plaintiff assertively gives his consent. For example, A and B
lives in the same house.
A wants plant a poisonous tree in the house for
research purpose and ask B if he is OK with that. B agrees. Here, the consent
given is express. On the other hand consent can also be implied. Strictly
talking of strict liability, consent is implied when the source of danger is for
the 'common benefit' of both plaintiff and defendant. For instance, in Carstairs
V Taylor[vi], the plaintiff hired ground floor of defendant's house on rent.
There happened to be a water tank on the roof for supply of water. One day, the
water from the tank leaked and damaged plaintiff's goods. It was held that the
defendant's can't be held liable as plaintiff impliedly had consented to the
accumulation of dangerous thing (as the thing was installed for the common
benefit of both plaintiff and defendant).
- Act of third party:
If the damages has been caused by the act of a third
party or stranger over whom defendant has no control, then rule of strict
liability can't be applied. For instance, in Box V Jubb[vii], some strangers
blocked the drain of defendant's reservoir as a result of which the reservoir
overflowed and damaged plaintiff's property. The Court held that the defendant
could not be held liable as the damage has been caused by the act of stranger.
It must be noted that if the act of stranger can be foreseen and prevented by
the defendant, then the defendant has a duty to stop it. Failure on part of
defendant to do so would make him liable.
- Statutory Authority:
If the damage has been caused by an act which the
legislature authorizes then; the rule of strict liability can't be applied. For
example. If a railway line is constructed by a Statute and some damage is caused
by it, then the person can't use the rule of strict liability. In Green V
Chelsea Waterworks Co[viii], the defendant company had a statutory duty to
maintain continuous supply of water. A main belonging to the Company burst
without any negligence on its part, as a consequence of which the plaintiff's
premises were flooded with water. It was held that the company was not liable as
the company was engaged in performing a statutory duty.
Cases in Favour of the Plaintiff:
- Smith v/s Kenrick [ix]:
In this case, the plaintiff and defendant used to
mine on the adjacent land. The defendant dug holes in the ordinary course of
mining as a result of which, the water flowed from the defendant's mine into the
plaintiff's mine by gravitation and caused damage. It was held that the
defendant was not liable as "each owner had a right to work in his own mine in
the best way for his benefit and if he did so without negligence, he was not
liable to other for prejudice to his property which might thereby arise.
- Chadwick v/s Trover [x]:
In this case, a man pulled down his own wall
without giving notice to his neighbour(as he was not legally bound to do so)
and thereby caused damage to the latter's underground wall of which the
defendant had no knowledge. It was held that the man was not liable as there was
no knowledge present on his part that by doing so he would cause damage to other
- Partridge v/s Seott [xi]:
In this case, the defendant employed some
competent persons to perform a lawful act. But some damage to plaintiff due to
the negligence of the employed ones. It was held that the people who actually
had done the work alone were liable.
- Smith V Kenrick [xii]:
It was held that though if no negligence is there
on the part of defendant in causing damage to the property but if the injury was
occasioned by something which was not ordinary or natural use of the land then,
the defendant shall be held liable for the damages.
- Baird V Williamson [xiii]:
In this case the parties were neighbours and
used to work on adjacent mines. The defendant raised his mine's water to a
higher level via pumping, as a result of which the water flooded into the
plaintiff's mine and caused severe damage. It was held that though the defendant
was not negligent in performance of the Act, he was liable as it was in
consequence of his act whether skilfully or unskilfully performed, that the
damage has been caused.
- Hodgkinson V Ennor [xiv]:
In this case, the defendant had polluted a
stream by works on his own land which though were not illegal, were not the
natural mode of working of the property and produced a mischief to his neighbour. The Court held that the defendant was liable and placed reliance on
the maxim "SIo utere two ut alinum non laedas" i.e. one must use his property so
as not to injure the lawful rights of another. The property owner may put his
land to any use as long as he does not deprive the adjoining land owner of any
right of enjoyment of his property. If he infringes any legal right of the
latter then the former shall take responsibility for it.
- Lambert V Bessey [xv]:
In this case the ratio which the court developed
was that "if a man doeth a lawful act, yet if injury to another ariseth from it,
the man who does the ach shall be answerable".
The landmark judgment of Rylands V Fletcher played a vital role in law of torts.
The rule of strict liability propounded in this case has been instrumental in
solving many disputes where the damage is caused without any negligence on part
of defendant. In this fast changing world where industrialization and
technological advancements are taking place rapidly, it is necessary that the
owner who makes use of dangerous things shall be made onerous to bear the
responsibility of every damage which that thing may cause.
The rule of strict
liability helps us in achieving that objective. It places an additional burden
on the owner to bear the responsibility of all catastrophes that may be caused
by the dangerous thing he has bought. Moreover, it also ensures that every owner
exercise proper care in handling such dangerous properties.
- RK Bangia, Law of Torts 327 (Allahabad Law Agency, Faridabad, 2021)
- Rylands V Fletcher available
at: https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110903100432998/ (last
visited on February 10, 2022)
- Rickards V Lothiam, (1913) A.C. 263
- (1849) 2 Q.B. 281
- (1876) 2 Ex. D.1
- (1871) L.R. 6 Ex. 217
- (1879) 4 Ex. D. 76
- (1894) 70 L.T. 547
- 7 C. B. 515.
- 6 Bing. N.C.1.
- 3 M. & W. 220.
- Supra note 4
- 15 C.B. (N.S.) 376
- 4 B.&S. 229
- Pr.&Ag. 262