Rylands v. Fletcher: Property Damage Claims

Denis Grigoras

Denis is a lawyer who draws on his background in complex legal disputes and transactions to problem-solve for his clients.

Rylands v. Fletcher is a landmark case in English tort law that established the principle of strict liability for certain harmful activities. The rule states that a person who uses their land for non-natural purposes and accumulates a potentially dangerous substance on their property may be held strictly liable if that substance escapes and causes damage to another’s property.

Property Damage Claims

Introduction

Strict liability is a concept in tort law that holds a person legally responsible for the consequences of their actions, regardless of negligence or fault. One of the most well-known strict liability rules comes from the 1868 English case, Rylands v. Fletcher. In this blog post, we’ll explore the rule from Rylands v. Fletcher, its application in various jurisdictions, and the defences available to defendants under this rule. We’ll also discuss some of the criticisms and debates surrounding this principle and its relevance in the 21st century.

The Rule in Rylands v. Fletcher: An Overview

Rylands v. Fletcher is a landmark case in English tort law that established the principle of strict liability for certain harmful activities. The rule states that a person who uses their land for non-natural purposes and accumulates a potentially dangerous substance on their property may be held strictly liable if that substance escapes and causes damage to another’s property.

The rule has been refined over time and is now generally applied when three main conditions are met: (1) the defendant has made a non-natural use of their land, (2) the defendant has brought onto their land something that is likely to cause harm if it escapes, and (3) the substance escapes and causes harm to another’s property.

Defining Non-Natural Use of Land

One of the key elements of the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher is determining whether a defendant’s use of their land is considered “non-natural.” While the distinction between natural and non-natural uses may be somewhat arbitrary, the courts have generally defined non-natural use as an activity that is not ordinarily associated with the enjoyment of land or property.

Some examples of non-natural uses include storing large quantities of water, operating a chemical plant, or conducting mining operations. In contrast, natural uses of land typically involve activities like farming, gardening, or raising livestock.

Application of the Rule in Different Jurisdictions

The rule in Rylands v. Fletcher has been adopted in various forms by different jurisdictions around the world. In the United Kingdom, the rule has been significantly limited by subsequent case law and legislative developments. Australian courts have rejected the rule altogether, while its application in the United States varies by state.

In Canada, the rule remains alive and well, continuing to play a role in strict liability cases. It is important to note that even in jurisdictions where the rule is still recognized, it may not be applied consistently, and its scope and meaning remain subject to ongoing debate.

Defences to Strict Liability

There are several defences available to defendants who find themselves subject to strict liability under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher. These defences include:

  1. Consent of the Plaintiff: If a plaintiff has expressly or implicitly consented to the defendant’s activity or the potential harm it could cause, this consent may serve as a defence against strict liability.
  2. Plaintiff’s Own Fault: If a plaintiff contributes to their own harm through their actions or negligence, this may serve as a defence to strict liability.
  3. Act of God: This defence applies when the escape of a dangerous substance is due to extraordinary natural events that could not have been foreseen or guarded against by the defendant.
  4. Deliberate Acts of Third Parties: If the escape is caused by the intentional actions of a third party, the defendant may be exempt from strict liability, provided the defendant could not have foreseen or prevented the third party’s actions.
  5. Legislative Authority: If the defendant’s activity is authorized by legislation, they may be exempt from strict liability unless they are found to be negligent.

Criticisms and Debates Surrounding Rylands v. Fletcher

Despite its longstanding influence, the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher has been the subject of considerable debate and criticism. Some legal scholars argue that the rule is unnecessary, as the same outcomes could be achieved through negligence law combined with the principle of res ipsa loquitur, which allows a court to infer negligence from the circumstances of an incident.

Others view the rule as irrational, outdated, and an obstacle to the development of a more logical and consistent doctrine of tort responsibility. Critics contend that the rule can lead to groundless lawsuits and ultimately disappoint plaintiffs with unfavourable outcomes.

In defence of Rylands v. Fletcher, some scholars argue that the rule has value as a distinct tort, serving as a means for individuals to secure environmental protection from harmful industrial activities. They maintain that the rule helps educate society about the special responsibilities associated with certain types of activities and satisfies the psychological needs of victims and the general public.

Conclusion

The rule in Rylands v. Fletcher remains an important and controversial aspect of tort law, with its scope and application continuing to evolve in various jurisdictions. While its future may be uncertain, the rule stands as a reminder of the potential for strict liability to serve as an alternative to negligence-based liability in certain situations.

As we’ve seen, the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher has faced significant challenges and criticisms over the years. However, it continues to play a role in some jurisdictions, particularly in Canada, where it remains an active principle of tort law. Understanding the rule and its implications can help individuals navigate the complexities of strict liability cases and better comprehend the broader landscape of tort law. Ultimately, Rylands v. Fletcher represents a key element of the ongoing conversation about the balance between individual rights and societal needs in the realm of tort liability.

Example: Weenen v. Biadi

A lawsuit was brought forth by a property owner seeking damages for nuisance, negligence, and strict liability, while the defendant counterclaimed for trespass, nuisance, malicious prosecution, and other causes of action. The two parties involved were neighbours. The defendant’s land had historically drained surface water in a south-easterly direction over the plaintiff’s property. Before the defendant purchased his land, portions of the plaintiff’s property would become damp but not flooded during certain times of the year. After the defendant acquired his land, he began adding fill to it, which led to significant flooding on the plaintiff’s property. To address the increased water flow caused by the added fill, the defendant constructed two swales. One, built along the western boundary of the plaintiff’s land, was insufficient in height and capacity to prevent water from flowing onto the plaintiff’s property. Additionally, a culvert running beneath a nearby driveway became blocked, preventing surface water from draining off the plaintiff’s land. The plaintiff argued that the defendant’s actions had increased the volume and speed of surface water draining across his property, worsened the drainage into the west-east ditch near the defendant’s land, and reduced the ability of water to flow through the culvert under the defendant’s driveway, thereby causing the flooding.

The court ruled in favour of the plaintiff, dismissing the counterclaim. The defendant was found responsible for the flooding of the plaintiff’s property, as extensive flooding began after the defendant started adding fill to his land. By raising his land’s level, the defendant increased the flow of surface water that naturally drained from his property to the plaintiff’s. The north-south swale was found inadequate in preventing water flow from the defendant’s land to the plaintiff’s. The defendant also neglected to maintain the blocked culvert on his property and prevented the plaintiff from doing so until 2008, with little maintenance after that until 2011. The defendant was found negligent for continuing to add fill to his land with the knowledge that it could cause flooding to the plaintiff’s property, for failing to take sufficient measures to ensure the swale was properly constructed, and for neglecting to maintain the culvert. The defendant was also found to have made non-natural use of his land by adding fill, improperly constructing the swale, and adding fill to his driveway. These non-natural uses resulted in excessive flooding of the plaintiff’s property, making the defendant strictly liable for the damages caused. The plaintiff was awarded damages totalling $250,000 for the loss of use and enjoyment of his property, $153,045 plus HST for land restoration, damages from a workshop fire, $15,000 for damages to his chicken coop, and punitive damages of $125,000. Insufficient evidence was provided to prove any contact between the defendant and any other parties involved besides the plaintiff and his girlfriend, Daniel. Furthermore, there was insufficient evidence to show that Daniel’s conduct caused the defendant any loss of enjoyment of his land. Although Daniel had initiated criminal proceedings against the defendant, the proceedings did not terminate in his favour, and Daniel had reasonable cause to contact the police. In regard to the counterclaim against the plaintiff, the plaintiff’s conduct was primarily related to the dispute over flooding, and most of his actions were attempts to address the issue. While the plaintiff may have damaged some of the defendant’s trees, there was no evidence that he damaged the fence or caused the need for repairs to the ditch or culvert. As no cause of action for malicious prosecution was established against Daniel, the claim against the plaintiff for malicious prosecution could not succeed.

Facing a property dispute rooted in strict liability? Equip yourself with expert insights from the landmark Rylands v. Fletcher case and navigate the complexities of litigation confidently.

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