CASE ANALYSIS

RYLANDS V. FLETCHER

Rylands vs. Fletcher (1868) L.R. 3 H.L. 330 is one of the landmark cases of tort law.  In this case, The House of Lords laid down the rule recognizing ‘No Fault’ liability. The ‘Rule of Strict Liability’ originated in this case. By this rule, a person may be liable for some harm even though he is not negligent in causing the same. Further, this case paved the way for ‘The Rule Of Absolute liability’ in India.

Judges (sitting)

 Lord Cairns and Lord Cranworth

Decided on

17 July 1868

Major contribution of the case

‘The Rule of Strict Liability’ originated in this case.

Facts of the case

The defendant, Rylands got a reservoir constructed, through independent contractors, over his land for providing water to his mill. There were some old disused shafts under the site of the reservoir, which the contractors failed to observe. So they didn’t block the shafts. When water was filled within the reservoir, it burst through the shafts. As a result plaintiff’s coal mines on the adjoining land was flooded. The defendant didn’t know about the shafts and he had not been negligent although the independent contractors had been. The negligence was on the part of independent contractors. Since the plaintiff, Fletcher has to suffer losses, he sued defendants.

Issues raised

  • 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?

Judgment

The House of Lords dismissed the appeal and agreed with the six Exchequer judges. Lord Cairns, while speaking for the House of Lords, stated their agreement of the rule stated above by Justice Blackburn in the court of Exchequer Chamber but included a further limitation on liability. The one more requirement is that the land from which the escape occurs must have been modified in a way which would be considered non-natural, unusual or inappropriate.  The decision of House of Lords added a requirement that the use be ‘non-natural’. The judgement of this case was delivered on 17 July. In this the court consisted of only two judges, Lord Cairns and Lord Cranworth; Lord Colonsay didn’t attend the case.

Three essentials, for the application of the Rule of Strict Liability

  • Some dangerous thing must have been brought by a person on his land.

According to this rule, the liability for the escape of thing from one’s land arises when the thing collected was a dangerous thing. It means a thing likely to do mischief if it escapes. In Rylands v. Fletcher, the dangerous thing was a very large body of water

  • The thing thus brought or kept by an individual on his land must escape.

For the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher to apply, it is also essential that the thing causing the damage must escape to the world outside the occupation and control of the defendant

  • It must be non-natural use of land.

Water collected within the reservoir in such an enormous quantity in Rylands v. Fletcher was held to be non-natural use of land. In order to show that, the use is non-natural, it must be shown that use is some special use bringing with it increased danger to others.

Exceptions to the Rule of Strict Liability

A number of defences to the rule of strict liability too  was developed in this case and some later cases:

  • Escape was owing to the plaintiff’s default
  • Escape was a consequence of vis major
  • Consent of the plaintiff
  • Act of third party
  • Statutory authority

Impact of the case in India

In M. C. Mehta v. Union Of India, the Supreme court took a bold decision holding that it was not bound to follow the 19th-century rule of English law. The honourable Supreme Court said it could evolve a rule suitable to the social and economic conditions prevailing in India at the present day. It evolved the rule of ‘Absolute Liability’ as a  part of Indian law in preference to the rule of Strict Liability laid down in Rylands v. Fletcher. This rule was not subject to any of the exceptions under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher. The defences to the Rule of Strict Liability can be used by the persons who had established ‘hazardous and inherently dangerous’ industries to escape the liability for the havoc caused, by pleading some exceptions. So to remove that grey area and in order to increase accountability on the part of persons engaged in such kind of activities, the rule of ‘Absolute Liability’ has been evolved in India.

Conclusion

Ryland vs. Fletcher played a great role in deciding owners’ liability when he is bringing any dangerous object in his premises. It was necessary to have a law that could increase the duty of the owner. So that he can be more careful while bringing any dangerous object in his premises. The world is progressing very fast and in this era of industrialization, privatisation and globalization disputes regarding the duty of care are burgeoning rapidly so there was a need for a law that could solve these problems. This was done in this case. In the context of India, this  Rule of strict liability paved the way for ‘The Rule of Absolute Liability’ in India.

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