Rylands V Fletcher, played an important role in tort law and it is a landmark judgement. The defendant in this case had a plan to construct a reservoir on his land for the purpose of providing water to his mill. For the construction of the reservoir he employed independent contractors. While digging there were disused shafts under the site of the reservoir which the independent contractors failed to found and they did not seal them properly the result was that Rylands reservoirs burst and flooded a nearby mine, run by fletcher, shortly after it was filled for the first time on 11 december 1860, causing 937 pounds worth of damage. The issue was that in the case could the defendant be held responsible for damages incurred by the plaintiff if his use of his land was unreasonable? It was held that the defendant did not know of the shafts and had not been negligent although the independent contractors had been. Even though the defendant has not been negligent, it was held liable.
According to the Court of Liverpool, the flooding did not constitute a trespass since the flood was not direct and immediate, nor did it constitute a nuisance since the flood was not a continuous event, but a random one. On December 14, 1864, a Court order appointed an independent arbitrator to hear the case. The arbitrator too ruled in favour of the defendant, finding that the defendant had no knowledge of the mine shafts, meaning that he could not be held responsible. Instead, the arbitrators held the contractors liable for their negligent conduct.
Fletcher appealed the Exchequer Chamber decision, consisting of six judges, after being aggrieved by the decision of the Court of Exchequer of Pleas. Several judges overturned the decision of the Court of Exchequer of Pleas. It was in this case the Court formulated the concept of Strict Liability for the first time.
Judge Blackburn propounded the following rule as the basis for liability in Rylands v. Fletcher:
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 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.
The House of Lords added another important qualification to the rule outlined by Blackburn, J, in the Exchequer Chamber, when considering the case. It was held that under the rule, the use of land should be considered ‘non-natural’, as was the case in Rylands v. Fletcher.
Accordingly, for the rule to be effective, the following three elements must be present :
- It must have been something dangerous on his property purchased by someone : The term “dangerous” implies that if it left his territory, some sort of misery could occur. The water in the Fletcher pool was toxic in the above example.
- Bringing or keeping something on personal property must escape from that person’s land. : A second vital part of strict liability is the concept of escape. This means that anything that can cause harm to another person should be escaped from the person’s property and not within reach.
- There must be no natural use of the land : in the case Rylands v. Fletcher, the defendant, constructed the reservoir for the benefits of the mill (non- natural use) . If he stored the water for natural use then he cannot be liable otherwise he is liable.
Rylands V Fletcher, played an important role in tort law and it is a landmark judgement. The rule of strict liability established in this case has helped solve many disputes where damage was caused without any negligence on the part of the defendant. Due to the rapid pace at which industrialization and technological advancements are occurring, it is imperative that the owner of any dangerous equipment or thing must be held responsible for all damages that it may cause. The rule of strict liability is applicable as much in India as in England.
The Rule of Strict Liability and Absolute Liability in Indian Perspective
LAW OF TORTS, R.K Bangia, pp 321,322
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