Rule of Strict Liability: Rylands v. Fletcher and its Exceptions
Authored by - Sania Vinayan
Keywords - Strict Liability, Negligence, Exceptions to Rule
Case: Rylands v. Fletcher
Court: House of Lords
Judge: Delivered by Lord Blackburn J, adopted in the House of Lords
Date: 17 July 1868
Equivalent citation: (1868) L.R. 3 H.L. 330;  7 WLUK 83;
This article discusses the meaning of the rule declared in Rylands v. Fletcher and its exceptions. The case was a turning point in tort law and focuses on the concept of strict liability. The case has set a precedent ever since it was decided in the court of the House of Lords in 1968.
The rule of Rylands v. Fletcher has managed to set a precedent for cases of tort law. Most importantly, it has set down the principle of “strict liability” for the first time since 1868. The law took cognizance of the fact that certain objects/things are of extraordinary risk, and a person owning such an object is liable for it and has to ensure that their neighbour does not face any consequent harm. The background of the case is as follows:
Rylands (R), to serve his mill, had built a reservoir on land adjacent to Fletcher's (F) mines. Underneath the reservoir, there were disused mine shafts with which F's mine shafts came into contact. When the reservoir was filled or partly filled with water, its weight broke through the disused shafts and the water penetrated F's mine and caused damage for which F claimed against R.
The question of law that arose from this case was,
Whether the law cast upon the defendant an absolute duty to keep it (anything that would cause harm if escaped) at his own peril; or
his duty finishes after taking reasonable precautions to keep it in the place it is supposed to be in?
If the first becomes the law, the person would be responsible for all the natural consequences of its escape. It would be the person's duty to ensure safety and would be held answerable if it becomes unsafe for their neighbours.
And if the second stood to be the law, it would make the person not answerable unless there is proof of his negligence. Consequently, the person would not be answerable for the escape arising from any hidden defect which ordinary foresight could not detect. Hence, it would not be the person's responsibility if it escapes and causes harm, beyond what is foreseeable.
This excerpt from the judgment highlights behind the principle laid down by House of Lords,
“We think that 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
damage which is the natural consequence of its escape.” (Pollock, 1886)
The rationale behind this judgment was to hold persons strictly liable, even if the mishap is devoid of his own fault. This gives holders of dangerous objects/ substances more responsibility and duties for safety. This general principle has since been referred to as the rule of Rylands v. Fletcher or the rule of strict liability.
Strict Liability: As explained above, strict liability is a concept that imposes damages or injuries even if the person found strictly liable was void of any fault of their own.
Exceptions to Strict Liability
Act of God: “He can excuse himself by showing that the escape was owing to the plaintiffs’ default: or perhaps that the escape was the consequence of vis major or the act of God; but as nothing of this sort exists here, it is unnecessary to inquire what excuse would be sufficient.” An act of God does not necessarily mean that there need to be calamities so violent and unexpected that no foresight could have prevented it. It is enough that the accident should be such that reasonable foresight could not be anticipated. Whether it comes within this description is a question of fact. (Pollock, 1886)
Act of Stranger: The rule does not apply where the immediate cause of damage is the act of a stranger.
Plaintiff’s benefit: The rule does not apply where the artificial work, which is the source of danger, is maintain for the common benefit of the plaintiff and the defendant.
Legal Duty: Yet another exception in favour of persons acting in the performance of a legal duty, or the exercise of powers conferred by law. For example, the owners of a canal constructed under the authority of an Act of parliament are not bound at their peril to keep the water from escaping into a mine worked under the canal.
This means that when dealing with a dangerous instrument, the only caution that will be held adequate in point of law is to abolish its dangerous character altogether. But even so, the law does give certain exceptions to the rule. The rule of strict liability, although harsh, is just subject to its exceptions.
1. Pollock, F. (1886). Duties of insuring safety: The rule in rylands v. fletcher. Law Quarterly Review, 2(1) 52-65.
2. Rylands v Fletcher, (1868) L.R. 3 H.L. 330;  7 WLUK 83; (House of Lords July 17th, [i]1868).
5. Extracted from a case analysis on WestLaw India
6. Judgment delivered by Lord Blackburn J as cited by Pollock F. and published in HeinOnline 7. Excerpt of the judgment given by the House of Lords as cited by Pollock F.