Rylands v Fletcher / Strict Liability
The case of Rylands v Fletcher involved two adjacent coal mining operators. The defendant constructed a reservoir to supply water to his mill. His contractors failed to discover an underground shaft which connected to the plaintiff’s mine. The water broke from the reservoir and flooded the mine.
The defendant was not negligent. His contractors may have been, but he was not responsible for them. Trespass could not be maintained. No nuisance was involved because it was a single escape. At that time the liability of the independent contractor could not be established.
The House of Lords formulated what has come to be called the “rule in Rylands v Fletcher”. It applies to the “non-natural” use of land. Where something which is not natural is accumulated on land, which is liable to cause damage if it escapes, the defendant is strictly liable, (i.e. liable irrespective of fault) for the damage that ensues from escape.
In modern negligence terms, it could be argued that any use of land causing danger to adjoining owners, is potentially negligent so that the claimant might formulate hixclaim as negligence. However, at the time of the Rylands v Fletcher case, negligence law had not evolved in the manner which later occurred.
The key point with the Rylands v Fletcher principle is that once the use is non-natural, liability for damage caused by the escape from the land, is strict. No further element of fault or negligence need be shown. The characterisation of the use as natural or unnatural becomes critical in this context.
The concept of non-natural use under the rule is open to interpretation. It usually means a use, other than the ordinary use of the land. Bringing something onto or using the land for a purpose that increases danger to adjoining owners, may be categorised as non-natural use.
Non-natural use does not simply mean any use other than a pure state of nature. Sometimes it is interpreted as any artificial use. It generally requires something that is out of the ordinary. In Rylands v Fletcher itself, the construction of the reservoir was a non-natural use.
There have been a number of cases in relation to the issue of what constitutes non-natural use of land, for the purpose of the strict liability rule. The construction of the reservoir was deemed to be a non-natural use in the case of Rylands and Fletcher itself. However, the mere accumulation of water and non-natural systems, such as a drainage, heating or sprinkling systems do not appear to be subject to the rules. Domestic electricity and gas installations are not subject to the rule. In contrast, commercial uses of them in large quantities may be non-natural.
The ordinary drainage of land in the course of agriculture and husbandry is likely to be natural. However, large-scale drainage works, such as that may be required for commercial exploitation of resources may not be natural use (e.g. works by the Turf Development Board). Trees are not regarded as non-natural. However, bringing a poisonous tree onto land may be non-natural, so that strict liability may be imposed if they encroach on adjoining property, causing damage.
Accumulation and Escape
The rule requires that the dangerous thing or material be accumulated on to the land. In this context, accumulations have been held to include debris and building materials, vibrations of fairgrounds and even a gipsy caravan site. The defendant must bring the source of danger onto the land and keep it there. Where something dangerous accumulates spontaneously or is brought on to the land by the force of nature, the rule does not apply.
Liability depends on an escape from land which is under the defendant’s occupation or control. As with nuisance, the defendant need not have any ownership rights in the land, provided that he occupies or controls it. Public authorities who have rights and wayleaves over land, are likely to be sufficiently in control for the purpose of potential liability under the rule.
The requirement for “escape” has been interpreted broadly. The requirement for escape is anomalous in that damage and injury caused within the land, would not be caused by an “escape” from the land. However, the requirement may be justified on the basis that an occupier should be liable for negligent escape within his land, while being strictly liable, in the interest of the community, for escapes from his land.
In the United States, the rule has been developed to provide for a broader principle of strict liability where a person undertakes a very hazardous activity. There is no requirement for escape. The Irish courts have speculated that a broad principle of strict liability might be derived from the broad principles of Rylands v Fletcher. The courts have justified strict liability for larger scale retailers and supermarkets in trip and fall type cases, on this basis.
Unlike claims in nuisance, claims under the Rylands v Fletcher principle may be invoked by any person who suffers material damage or personal injury in consequence of the escape.
If the accumulation is made with the claimant’s express or implied consent, no claim may be made. This may occur in the context of a multi-storey building where the accumulation of a common water supply in the upper floor tanks, takes place the owners’ implied consent.
Where the claimant’s loss is due to his own susceptibility or sensitivity or is due to his own actions, the claimant may not invoke the rule. If the escape is due to the deliberate act of a third party which cannot be reasonably anticipated, the occupier will not generally be liable. Where the accumulation takes place due to the action of a third party or trespasser, then the defendant may be liable if he does not take reasonable steps to remove it.
The occupier will be liable for the actions of his employees and independent contractors. Effectively, he cannot delegate these responsibilities away. Similarly, he will be liable for the acts and omissions of third parties on the land with his consent.
It is questionable whether a non-occupier may sue for personal injury under the principle. It is not clear whether pure economic loss may be claimed.
There will be no liability if the escape occurs by reason of a so-called act of God. An act of God is sometimes referred to as “vis major” or “force majeure”. An act of God refers to a wholly extraordinary circumstance, for example, highly exceptional weather or natural conditions. Exceptional or natural phenomenon are not acts of God. Once a 50 or 60-year events may suffice.
Actions taken under the statutory authority will not create liability, in themselves. However, if the statutory function is undertaken negligently, then liability may arise. In order to be immune, the action must be necessitated by the statutorily permitted activity. .
In England and Wales, the principle of Rylands and Fletcher has been confined in recent times.
The House of Lords has sought to narrow the extent of liability under the principle in a major judgment, given in 1990. This is justified on the basis that law of negligence has become much broader in scope, over the last one hundred years.
The House of Lords has effectively subsumed this Ryland v Fletchers liability into negligence and nuisance. It emphasised that liability under the principle is based on the foreseeable risk of damage. Liability may arise, even if the defendant took reasonable care to prevent the escape. In the relevant case, the defendant was not liable because the particular escape could not be foreseen. Similarly, the Australian High Court has sought to restate principles of Rylands and Fletcher in terms of negligence.
A person who deliberately sets a fire is liable for all damage which ensues. He is also guilty of a serious criminal offence; criminal damage. He is also likely to be liable in trespass for damage which follows as a direct consequence of his action.
Historically, occupiers have been liable for fire spreading from their property, irrespective of fault. However, legislation enacted in the early 18th century provided that no action should lie against a person in respect of a fire accidentally commenced in his dwellinghouse. This was extended to commercial and other properties and buildings, by the Accidental Fires Act 1943.
The legislation applies to fires which occur accidentally, without negligence. It requires that there be no negligence on the part of the occupier or persons for whom he is responsible. An occupier may be liable for persons on the property with his consent, under principles of vicarious liability may apply. The principle applies in an employment context, but it applies to other relationships.
Negligence may encompass the starting of the fire or the failure to control it. Although the occupier may not be liable for the negligence of strangers, he may be negligent in failing to extinguish a fire that is caused by a third party or by natural causes. What is required of the owner will depend on his particular circumstances, ability and resources.
The 1943 Act will apply even if there is no spread of fire a premises. If a person is injured by a fire while on the defendant’s premises, the defendant will not be liable unless he is negligent or has breached statutory duty. The legislation immunises occupiers and owners only. However, such persons are unlikely to owe strict duties, not being controllers or occupiers.
Apart from the legislation, a person may be liable on general principles, where another is injured by fire as a result of his negligence. Where there is a fire hazard, the occupier or other people responsible may be liable under the law of negligence, for failing to manage it.
The Fire Services Act places a duty in persons having control of premises used for commercial, educational health, entertainment and certain other purposes, to take reasonable measures in respect of the risk of an outbreak of fire. They must ensure insofar as reasonably practicable, the safety of persons on the premises, in the event of an outbreak of fire.
It is the duty of persons on such premises to conduct himself in such a way as to ensure that insofar as reasonably practicable, no person on the premises is exposed to danger from a fire as a consequence of his acts or omissions.
No claim may be made against a State Authority, Minister, the sanitary authority of its officer for personal injuries or property damage due to failure to comply with the Fire Service Act.
Rescuers who suffer an injury in the course of fire may have a claim in negligence. The general principles of negligence apply. Rescuers will not generally be held to have voluntarily assumed the risk or be contributorily liable. Where fire is foreseeable, the calling out of rescuers will equally be foreseeable. In exceptional cases, contributory negligence may apply.