Examine the rule of strict liability as laid down in the case of Rylands Verses Fletcher. Discuss the applications and limits to this rule. (2017)

Examine the rule of strict liability as laid down in the case of Rylands Verses Fletcher. Discuss the applications and limits to this rule. (2017)

Category : Law of torts

Answer. Man performs so many activities which are dangerous to person and property of others. State allow them on the condition that the doers of the activities have to compensate for the damage caused irrespective of any carelessness or fault on their part. The basis of liability is the magnitude of the risk which is foreseeable. The case of Rylands Verses Fletcher which was decided in 1868 for the first time laid down the rule of absolute liability according to which plaintiff is not required to prove negligence, lack of care or wrongful intention on the part of the defendant. Facts, Fletcher was running a coal mine unde’r a lease. On the neighbouring land, Rylands desired to erect a reservoir for storing water and for this purpose he employed a competent independent contractor whose workmen, while excavating the soil, discovered some disused shafts and passages communicating with old working and the mine in adjoining land. The shafts and passages had been filled with loose earth rubbish. The contractor did not take the trouble to pack these shafts and passages with earth so as to bear the pressure of water in the reservoir when filled. Shortly after the construction of the reservoir even when it was partly filled with water, the vertical shafts gave way and burst downwards. The consequence was that the water flooded the old passages and also the plaintiffs mine, so that the mine could not be worked. The plaintiff sued for damages. No negligence on the part of the defendant was proved. The only question was whether the defendant would be liable for the negligence of the independent contractor who was admittedly a competent engineer. It was held that the question of negligence was quite immaterial. The defendant in bringing water into the reservoir was bound to keep it there at his peril and was therefore liable. Rule laid down in the case, Blackburn, J., laid down the following proposition of law, “The true rule of law is, that the person, who for his own purposes, brings on his lands, and collects 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 damages which is the natural consequence of its escape.” In the House of Lords it was laid down that, “If a person brings or accumulates on his land anything which, if it would escape may cause damage to his neighbours if it does escape and cause damage he is responsible, however, careful he may have been, and whatever precaution he may have undertaken to prevent the damage.” However, in the House of Lords, Lord Cairns added one more element. He said that use of land by the defendant should be non-natural. And he said that in the instant case the defendant was using the land in a non-natural way. The rule in Ry lands Verses Fletcher is the most important of the cases where a man acts at his peril and is the insurer of the safety of his neighbour against accidental harms. Here the duty is not merely the general negative duty to refrain from active injury, but a positive duty to guard and protect one’s neighbours lest they suffer harm by reason of dangerous things artificially brought on one’s land and the duty is absolute because it is independent of any negligence on the part of the defendant or his servants. Applications of the Rule, The above rule, though enunciated in an action of nuisance as between two adjacent land owners, has become in course of time a general principle applicable in all cases where, apart from negligence, the defendant makes hazardous use of his property, and as a result the plaintiff sustains damage. But the rule is confined to dangerous things per se. The rule has now been held to govern the liability for fire. Though the case of Ryland Verses Fletcher was a case of water escaping to adjacent lands, the principle of liability is not confined to the escape of water, but has been extended to anything and everything which has a tendency to escape and cause mischief. As Salmond says, “It is not anything which is likely to do mischief, if it escapes, but rather anything which is likely to escape, and do mischief.” For instance, dangerous animals, petrol, electricity, explosives, poison, fire sewage, in fact, everything that has a tendency to escape and cause mischief may become the subject-matter of the application of the rule in Rylands v.Fletcher. Limit or Conditions of the Rule, Lindley, LJ. in Green Verses Chelsea Waterworks Company, observed, “Since liability under it is imposed without proof of negligence, the Rule is not to be extended beyond the legitimate principle on which the House of Lords decided it. Otherwise it would be a very repressive decision.” It is, therefore, most important to appreciate the limits of its operation. And the best approach to this is to cite from the speech of Viscount Simon in Read Verses Lyon & CompanyLimited, “Now the strict liability recognised by this House in Rylatids Verses Fletcher is conditioned by two elements which I may call the condition of’escape’ from the land of something likely to do mischief if it escapes, and the condition of “non-natural use of the land.” Escape, Liability will only be imposed if there is an “escape” of the object from land of which the defendant is in occupation or control. The essential point is that, starting on the defendant’s land, the thing must do its damage beyond the confines of it, if the damage is within the defendant’s boundaries the Rule cannot apply though of course there may be some other ground of liability, such as, negligence. Another thing which must be proved by the plaintiff is that the damage was the natural consequences of the escape. Things likely to do mischief, Whether a thing which has been brought and kept by the defendant on his land is one which is likely to do mischief if it escapes is a question of fact and it is to be decided in each case. Therefore, one particular thing may come within the rule in one case but not in another. “Non-natural uses”, When the case of Rylands Verses Fletcher came before the House of Lords an important qualification was made to Blackburn, J.S. principle. It was held that the use of the object upon the land must be “non-natural”. Practical difficulty lies in the determination of what is or what is not a “natural” or ordinary use of the land. Thus, Rylands’ case decided that it is not “natural” to construct a reservoir for water for a mill, and it has been held not to be “natural (1) to collect a large heap of colliery spoil upon unstable land, (2) to use blow lamp to thaw frozen pipes in the vicinity of felt lagging, or (3) to accumulate gas in large quantities in pipes, but it has often been held to be “natural”

(1) to keep a domestic water supply for ordinary purposes, (2) to have electric wiring upon premises, (3) to light a fire in a grate, (4) to burn paper in a chiminey to test a flue, (5) to operate an explosive factory in time of war. In T.C. Balkrishna Menon Verses T.R. Subramanian, the court held that the use of explosives in an open field on the occasion of festival is a “non-natural” use of land. If a person stores or marks explosive substances in an open field even on the occasion of celebration of some festival, that would amount ,to non-natural use of land and the rule of Rylands Verses Fletcher would apply in such cases. The retention of water by a person in a portion of his land to prevent its passing on to the other portions of his land is not an act done in the natural and usual course of employment and the person so doing is liable, for danger caused thereby. In State of Punjab Verses Modern Cultivators, damage was caused by overflow of water from a canal, the Apex Court held that use of land for construction of a canal system is a normal use and not a non-natural use. Recently the Karnataka High Court also considered non-natural use of land inMukesh Textile Mills Verses Subramanyam Sastry, here the defendant was the owner of a sugar factory. Adjacent to the sugar factory the plaintiff owned large land. The defendant stored large quantities of molasses which escaped to the neighbour’s land and caused extensive damage to his crop. It was held that it was non-natural use of land and if a person collected such things on his land and escaped to neighbours’ land, he had a liability. Defendant’s responsibility, The rule only applies to a person who “collects and keeps” the object on his land. Thus if the object is on the land and it escapes not by his efforts but in the “ordinary course of nature” he will not be responsible for it, under Rylands Verses Fletcher. When a person constructs a dam on his land which has effect of diverting the water from its natural channel on the land of a neighbour and thereby he causes damage to it, he is liable to his neighbour. “An owner of property has no right to let off water which has naturally accumulated therein even for purpose of its preservation from damage therefrom if this will have the effect of transferring his misfortune to the property of another.” Damages, Although under Rylands Verses Fletcher there is no need for the plaintiff lo prove that his injury was caused by any default or lack of care on the part of the defendant, he must establish “damage as the natural consequence of the escape.”


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