Rylands v Fletcher – Case Summary

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07/03/18 Cases Reference this

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In Rylands v Fletcher (1868) LR 3 HL 330, 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.


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


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:

Ellison v Ministry of Defence (1997) 81 BLR 101, [1997]CLY 3864

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

See above for the Cambridge Water Case (1994).


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.


A number of defences have been developed to the rule in Rylands v Fletcher.

1. Consent

The express or implied consent of the claimant to the presence of source of the danger, provided there has been no negligence by the defendant, will be a defence.

2. Common Benefit

If the source of the danger was maintained for the benefit of both the claimant and defendant, the defendant will not be liable for its escape. This defence is either related to the defence of consent or the same thing. According to Winfield & Jolowicz, p551, “common benefit seems redundant (and indeed misleading) as an independent defence”.

3. Act of a stranger

The defendant will not be liable if a stranger was responsible for the escape.

Rickards v Lothian [1913] AC 263. The D was not liable when an unknown person blocked a basin on his property and caused a flood, which damaged a flat below.

4. Statutory authority

A statute may require a person or body to carry out a particular activity. Liability under Rylands v Fletcher may be excluded upon the interpretation of the statute.

5. Act of God

An act of God is an event which ‘no human foresight can provide against, and of which human prudence is not bound to recognise the possibility’ (per Lord Westbury, Tennent v Earl of Glasgow (1864) 2 M (HL) 22 at 26-27).

Nichols v Marsland (1876) 2 ExD 1. Exceptionally heavy rain caused artificial lakes, bridges and waterways to be flooded and damage adjoining land. The D was not liable.

However, Nichols v Marsland was doubted by the House of Lords in:

Greenock Corporation v Caledonian Railway [1917] AC 556. The corp. constructed a concrete paddling pool for children in the bed of a stream and obstructed the natural flow of the stream. Owing to a rainfall of extraordinary violence the stream overflowed at the pond and damaged the property of the plaintiffs. Held that the extraordinary rainfall did not absolve the corp. from responsibility and that they were liable in damages.

6. Default of the claimant

If the escape is the fault of the claimant there will be no liability. Alternatively, there may be contributory negligence on the part of the claimant.

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