Rylands v. Fletcher Case Brief

Summary of Rylands v. Fletcher, In the Exchequer, ENG [1865]

Abnormally Dangerous Activities

Relevant Facts: The df were owners of a mill. In order to supply it with water they constructed a reservoir upon nearby land. The Pl was working certain coal mines, under lands, close to but not adjoining the premises on which the reservoir was constructed. The Df employed an engineer and contractors or plan and build the reservoir. The contractors, in excavating for the bed of the reservoir, came upon five long ago abandoned vertical shafts. B/c they were filled with soil neither the contractors nor the Dfs suspected that they were abandoned mine shafts. The reservoir was completed and partly filled. Within days one of the shafts gave way and burst, letting water flow into the pl’s workings, flooding their mine.

Legal Issue(s): Whether the Pl is entitled to recover damages from the Df by reason of strict liability applied to an abnormally dangerous activity?

Court’s Holding: Yes

Procedure: After arbitrator rendered decision for the pl with a special case, Exchequer was for the Dfs, PL brought writ of errors to Exchequer Chambers. Judgment for Pl. Ct of Exchequer affirmed for PL.

Law or Rule(s): A person, who lawfully brings on his land something which though harmless, but will do mischief if it escape, must keep it at his peril, and if he does not, he is answerable for all the damage.

Court Rationale: PL, though free from blame, must bear the loss, unless he can establish that it was the consequence of some default for which the dfs were responsible. The df has an absolute duty to keep the reservoir at his peril. He can excuse himself by showing that the escape was owing to the pl or the act of God, or vis major (a greater or superior force). None of which exists here. It is reasonable and just that the neighbor who has brought something on his own property, knowing it to be mischievous if it escapes, should be obliged to make good the damage which ensues. But for the df’s act in constructing the reservoir no mischief could have accrued, and he must answer for the natural and anticipated consequences. This principle applies to beasts, or water, or filth, or stenches.

Plaintiff’s Argument: Df engaged in a dangerous activity which caused damage to the Pl who was without fault.

Defendant’s Argument: The dfs were acting reasonably and lawfully upon their own land. There was no negligence on the part of the Df.

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