Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Rylands v. Fletcher, the Rule in Definition:

Strict liability for landowners for damage caused by dangerous substances which escapes from their land and damages others.

Related Terms: Strict Liability, Ultrahazardous Activity, Private Nuisance

Under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher, a person who allows a dangerous element on their land which, if it escapes and damages a neighbour, is liable on a strict liability basis - it is not necessary to prove negligence on the part of the landowner from which has escaped the dangerous substance.

In Rylands, Justice Blackburn held:

"We think that the true rule of law is, that the person who for his own purposes brings on his land 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 damage which is the natural consequence of its escape."

In Eastern & South African Railway, Justice Robertson wrote:

"The principle of Rylands v. Fletcher ... subjects to a high liability the owner who uses property for purposes other than those which are natural...."

An example of the application of the rule was stated by the Ontario Supreme Court (Court of Appeal) in Curtis v Lutes:

"One who sets a fire which spreads to his neighbour's land and does damage may be held liable under the rule of absolute liability laid down in Rylands v. Fletcher."

In Clerk & Lindsell on Torts, 20th Edition, the authors write:

"in the House of Lords, Lord Cairns concurred in his judgment but introduced an element of flexibility by restricting the rule to circumstances where the defendant made a noninatural use of the land. This is strict liability, in the limited sense that it is unnecessary for claimant to prove negligence in the defendant or his agents.

"Although it might once have developed as a separate branch of the law in its own right, the rule in Rylands v Fletcher is now perceived ... To be simply a special sub-rule of the law of private nuisance dealing with damage caused by isolated estates of dangerous substances from land."

REFERENCES:

  • Curtis v Lutes, [1953] 4 D.L.R. 188
  • Anthony Dugdale, A. and Jones, M., ed., Clerk & Lindsell on Torts, 20th Ed. (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 2010), page 1298.
  • Eastern & South African Telegraph Co. v. Cape Town Tramways, [1902] A.C. 381
  • Rylands v. Fletcher, [1868], L.R. 3 H.L. 330 (UKHL)

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