What Are Land Occupiers' Responsibilities to Neighbors?
Rylands v. Fletcher was an English legal case in 1868 that established the principle of strict liability in some instances where something escapes from the property onto a neighbor's property. Most American state courts have adopted and followed this legal standard. Strict liability is legal responsibility for one's conduct even if there is no negligence on the defendant's part. It is legally sufficient that the act caused harm.
Fletcher occupied land that held underground mines. Rylands operated a mill on neighboring property. Rylands's company wanted to create a reservoir on his property to store water for use on his mill. He hired an outside company to build five large vertical underground shafts and several smaller horizontal shafts to hold the water underneath his land.
Once the underground reservoir shafts were built and partially filled, they broke. Water escaped the Rylands land and flooded Fletcher's mines, causing physical and economic damage.
Fletcher sued Rylands, and after losing at the trial level, Fletcher won on appeal. The appeals court held that strict liability applied and that Rylands was responsible for damages even in the absence of any negligent, or careless, conduct on his part. Because the underground reservoir shafts on Rylands's land failed and caused the flooding damage on Fletcher's neighboring land, Rylands would ultimately be responsible for the damage.
It is often controversial to impose liability without proof of negligence, but courts do allow it in narrow circumstances such as this. Here, the court said there was no need to assess whether Rylands was negligent in terms of what happened because Rylands was responsible under strict liability. The requirements needed to establish a case under this rule are the following:
- There is an accumulation of a substance brought onto the defendant's land by the defendant.
- The substance is likely to do mischief if it escapes.
- The substance escapes because of a nonnatural use of the land.
- The substance causes obvious damage after escaping.
Rylands v. Fletcher
What Are Defenses to the Rylands v. Fletcher Rule?
Several defenses and limitations apply to Rylands v. Fletcher.
The accumulating substance must be something that the defendant brought onto the land artificially. If it's an item that is already on the land naturally, then no liability will arise under the Rylands v. Fletcher rule.
The item must be accumulated, or gathered, for the defendant's own purposes. However, the damaging thing that escapes does not have to be the thing that accumulated. For example, let's say a defendant is using dynamite to blast boulders that are naturally on their land to clear a field. Rock fragments go onto a neighbor's land and a highway and cause damage. The rock-blasting party is still liable for damages.
The accumulation does not have to be an item that is inherently dangerous, like water. It just needs to be something that can cause damage if it escapes.
No matter how hazardous a substance is, Rylands v. Fletcher does not apply if the accumulation does not escape the land.
The accumulation must be there artificially or must be used in a nonnatural fashion. If an item is already on the land naturally, such as a lake that overflows because of melting of heavy winter snow or heavy rainfall, then this rule would not apply because the accumulation of water was natural. The overflowing lake in this case would be considered to be an act of God.
Finally, the damage that is done must be foreseeable and not remote from the escaping action. Only a harm that is an obvious result of the escaping action can be claimed under this rule.
There are several defenses that a landowner could assert in a case similar to Rylands v. Fletcher. The first defense is the case that the damages are due to something that happened naturally, apart from the landowner's involvement. For example, if the flooding was because of an earthquake that caused an old coal shaft on Rylands's land to give way and release the water, rather than from the mill's drilling of new reservoir shafts, a defense could be made that the damages are due to an act of God. If the damage was caused by a stranger entering the land and causing the flooding through their actions rather than it being the result of purposeful drilling, a legal defense can be made that the person who should be responsible for damages is the stranger that caused the water to flood. In other cases, there may be statutory authority or another governmental request that legally required the mill to engage in behavior that caused the damage or flooding and that could be asserted as a defense if the action that caused the damage was unavoidable and legally required to take place. Finally, there is the defense of the plaintiff's contributory negligence. If the flooded mine was prone to easily being flooded due to some deficiency or error on the part of Fletcher, that could be a defense that Rylands could assert to avoid liability.