Summary of Rylands v. Fletcher, 1865 3 H & C 774, 159 English Rep. 737
Facts: Defendants were owners of a mill. In order to supply it with water they constructed a reservoir on nearby land. During the construction, “workings" were found which were actually abandoned mine shafts. Because these “workings" were filled in with earth similar to that of the surrounding ground, neither the defendants nor the contractors suspected them to be abandoned mine shafts. It was found by the arbitrator in the original case that the defendants were not guilty of personal negligence or fault, and that the contractors had exercised proper care.
History: In the trial case, judgment was given for the defendants, stating there was no trespass and no nuisance, because the defendants were committing a lawful and reasonable act. The case was then appealed to the Exchequer Chamber [an intermediate appeals court] and was reversed, citing the same rules for strict liability for trespassing cattle. The case then went to the House of Lords, the final appellate court.
Issue: Is the plaintiff entitled to recover damages from the defendant when it was found that the defendant was not guilty of negligence?
Ruling: Yes. The House of Lords upheld the ruling of the Exchequer Chamber.
Rationale: The House of Lords found that liability existed because the defendants put their land to a “non-natural" use and if the water had occurred upon the land “naturally," then the defendants would not have been liable.
Rule: A person who brings something dangerous [or in this case, unnatural] onto his land and fails to keep it on his land, is prima facie answerable for all natural consequences of its escape. He may be excused by showing that the escape was due to the plaintiff, or that the escape was due to an act of God, but in this case neither applies.