Fletcher (plaintiff) established numerous underground coal mines on land adjacent to land on which Rylands (defendant) had built a reservoir for supplying water to his mill. Rylands employed many engineers and contractors to build the reservoir. During building the reservoir, the employees came to know that it was being constructed on top of an abandoned underground coal mine. However, this fact was unknown to Rylands. After the complete establishment of the reservoir, it broke and flooded Fletcher’s coal mines. This caused a lot of damage to Fletcher’s property and Fletcher filed a suit against Rylands.
Was the use of Defendant’s land unreasonable and thus was he to be held liable for damages incurred by Plaintiff?
What is the obligation of one who lawfully brings something onto his land that would naturally bring mischief if it were to escape?
The lower court judgement was asserted, stating in essence that the Defendant’s use of the land was unreasonable, engaged in without proper caution, and resulted in harm to the Plaintiff.
Case law supports that if one had a field with water building up on it naturally, he would not be responsible for where it flowed, but if they artificially increased the amount of water and it flooded another’s field, the person who caused it is responsible. Likewise, defendants undertook this activity at their own risk and should be responsible for it’s damage.
The Rylands court considers the manner in which the Defendant used the land and concluded such use was “non- natural” what modern courts have described as inconsistent land use, that is when a party inflicts non- reciprocal risks on another.
The tort of trespass was inapplicable, as the flooding was deemed not to be “direct and immediate”; the tort of nuisance was rejected as this was a one- off event. The case was first heard by Mellor J and a special jury in September 1862 at the Liverpool Assizes; a court order led to an arbitrator from the Exchequer of Pleas being appointed in December 1864. The arbitrator decided that the contractors we’re liable for negligence, since they had known about the old mine shafts. Rylands, however, had no way of knowing about the mine shafts and so was not.
Swapna Sudha Sahoo
Siksha ‘O’ Anusandhan (Deemed to be University), SOA National Institute of Law, Bhubaneswar, Odisha