Fletcher v. Rylands and Anor
(1866) LR 1 Ex. 265 Court of Exchequer
The defendants own a plot of land separated from the plaintiff’s colliery by intervening land. Unaware that the subsoil suffered a latent defect, and that their site rested over five old shafts leading to the plaintiff’s coal mines, the defendants employed skilled engineers and contractors to construct a reservoir over it. Upon filling the reservoir, water burst down the shafts, resulting in flooding of the plaintiff’s colliery. Although the defendants were not personally negligent, their employees had not exercised adequate care and skill in constructing the reservoir. The plaintiff sued for damages.
Trial court: Judgment for defendants; one dissenting. The plaintiff appealed.
Judgment reversed in favour of the plaintiff.
In the absence of personal negligence, can the defendants be held liable for flooding the plaintiff’s colliery?
Yes; the charge of trespass on the defendants was one of strict liability.
Whosoever for his own purposes brings on his land anything that likely to do mischief if it escapes has an absolute duty to keep it at his peril, and is prima facie answerable for damages resulting from the natural consequence of its escape.
Since the defendants undertook the risk of bringing and keeping something onto their property which is likely to cause mischief if it escapes, it is only just that they be held liable for damages caused by the natural consequences of its escape.
The defendants can be excused only when it is proven that the escape was due to the plaintiff’s default, if it was the consequence of vis major, or the act of God, of which none apply here.
It is a matter of fact that if the defendants had not constructed the reservoir, no mischief would have occurred.
The case of Tenant v. Goldwin states...