Case Brief Wiki

Established Strict Liability rules in Common Law:

Keywords: Strict Liability, non-natural use, mischief, escape


Fletcher (plaintiff) operated several underground coal mines on land adjacent to land on which Rylands (defendant) had built a reservoir for the purpose of supplying water to his mill. Rylands employed engineers and contractors to build the reservoir. In the course of building the reservoir, these employees learned that it was being built on top of abandoned underground coal mines. This fact was unknown by Rylands. After the reservoir was completed, it broke and flooded Fletcher’s coal mines. This caused damage to Fletcher’s property, and Fletcher brought suit against Rylands. The Court of Exchequer held that Rylands was not liable, and the decision was appealed to the Court of Exchequer Chamber. There, Rylands was held strictly liable for damage caused to Fletcher’s property by water from the broken reservoir. Rylands appealed.

the defendants employed independent contractors to construct a reservoir on their land. The contractors found disused mines when digging but failed to seal them properly. They filled the reservoir with water. As a result, water flooded through the mineshafts into the plaintiff’s mines on the adjoining property. The plaintiff secured a verdict at Liverpool Assizes. The Court of Exchequer Chamber held the defendant liable and the House of Lords affirmed their decision.


It was decided by Blackburn J, who delivered the judgment of the Court of Exchequer Chamber, and the House of Lords, that to succeed in this tort the claimant must show:

  1. That the defendant brought something onto his land;
  2. That the defendant made a “non-natural use” of his land (per Lord Cairns, LC);
  3. The thing was something likely to do mischief if it escaped;
  4. The thing did escape and cause damage.

Requirements in Rylands v Fletcher[]

1. The defendant brought something onto his land

In law, there is a difference between things that grow or occur naturally on the land, and those that are accumulated there artificially by the defendant. For example, rocks and thistles naturally occur on land. However, the defendants in Rylands v Fletcher brought water onto the land.

2. Non-natural use of the land

In the House of Lords, Lord Cairns LC, laid down the requirement that there must be a non-natural use of the land.

Recent examples are:

3. Something likely to do mischief

The thing brought onto the land must be something likely to do mischief if it escapes. In such a situation the defendant keeps it in at his peril.

4. Escape

There must be an escape of the dangerous substance from the defendant’s land.

5. Foreseeability

There is now a further requirement, according to the House of Lords, that harm of the relevant type must have been foreseeable.

Remedies in Rylands v Fletcher[]

The owner of land close to the escape can recover damages for:

1. Physical harm to the land itself (as in Rylands v Fletcher) and to other property.

2. It is no longer clear if a claimant can recover for personal injury.