Tort Law: The Tort in Rylands v Fletcher

Posted by Catherine Robinson on

4-min read

The tort in Rylands v Fletcher deals with liability for damage caused by the escape of a dangerous substance or thing. In this blog post, we will delve into the principles and explore several significant cases to gain an understanding of this unique area of tort law.


how to get a first in law

How to Get a First in Law


The Genesis of the Rylands v. Fletcher Tort

The Rylands v. Fletcher tort, which falls under the category of strict liability, originated in the case of Rylands v. Fletcher [1868] LR 3 HL 330. In this seminal case, the defendant (Fletcher) employed independent contractors to construct a reservoir on his land. Unknown to Fletcher, the contractors' actions caused water to flood a neighbouring mine belonging to the plaintiff (Rylands). The House of Lords held that Fletcher was liable for the damages caused by the flooding, even though he was not personally at fault.

Key Principles of the Rylands v. Fletcher Tort

  1. Non-Natural Use: The crux of the Rylands v. Fletcher tort lies in the concept of "non-natural use" of land. To establish liability, the defendant must bring onto their land something that is likely to do mischief if it escapes. This escape must result from a non-natural use of the land.

  2. Escape: There must be an actual escape of the dangerous substance or thing from the defendant's land. This escape may be the result of a defendant's negligence or other conduct. If a substance remains under the defendant's control, there may be no liability.

  3. Foreseeability: The escape and resulting damage must be a foreseeable consequence of the non-natural use of land. If the escape is unforeseeable, the defendant may not be held liable.

Notable Cases Illustrating Rylands v. Fletcher Tort Principles

  1. Transco plc v. Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council [2003] UKHL 61: This case reaffirmed the importance of the foreseeability element. Here, the House of Lords held that the council was not liable for an explosion caused by a gas leak because it was unforeseeable that the escaping gas would cause the explosion.

  2. Read v. J. Lyons & Co. Ltd [1947] AC 156: In this case, a fire caused by a spark from a contractor's welding equipment led to an escape of gas, damaging a neighbouring property. The House of Lords found the defendant liable because the escape was foreseeable, and the use of gas was non-natural.

  3. Hale v. Jennings Brothers [1938] 1 KB 56: Here, the defendants' use of their land for storage of gas cylinders led to a fire and explosion on a neighbouring property. The court held that this was a non-natural use of land, and the defendants were liable.

  4. Cambridge Water Co. Ltd v. Eastern Counties Leather plc [1994] 2 WLR 53: In this case, the court held that the defendant's use of land for the storage of chemicals contaminated the claimant's water supply. The court found the defendant liable, emphasizing that the escape was foreseeable.


Additional Principles:

  1. Non-Delegable Duty: A defendant cannot delegate responsibility for controlling the dangerous substance or thing to a third party to avoid liability. They remain liable even if the escape is caused by the actions of independent contractors or agents.

  2. Nature of the Substance: The dangerous substance or thing must be of a kind that, if it escapes, is likely to cause damage or harm. It need not be inherently dangerous, but it must be capable of causing harm if it escapes.

  3. Strict Liability: The liability under Rylands v. Fletcher is strict, meaning the claimant does not need to prove negligence on the part of the defendant. It is enough to establish the elements of non-natural use, escape, and damage.

Additional Cases:

  1. Nichols v. Marsland [1876] 2 Ex D 1: In this case, the defendant had artificially collected and stored a large quantity of water on their land, which subsequently escaped and caused flooding and damage to the neighbouring land. The court held that the collection and storage of the water were non-natural uses of the land, and the defendant was liable.

  2. Rickards v. Lothian [1913] AC 263: The defendant's employee maliciously blocked a drain, causing water to flood the claimant's land. The House of Lords held the defendant liable because, even though the act was not foreseeable, the defendant was responsible for the actions of their employees.

  3. Smith v. Scott [1973] 1 QB 690: In this case, the defendant's tenant was storing a large quantity of fireworks in a house. A firework was ignited, leading to a fire and explosion. The court held the defendant liable for the damage because the storage of fireworks was a non-natural use of land.

  4. Cambridge Water Co. Ltd v. Eastern Counties Leather plc (revisited): In an appellate decision in 2002, the House of Lords clarified the principle of foreseeability. They held that the escape and damage must be foreseeable, not the precise manner in which the escape and damage occur. This reaffirmed the strict liability aspect of the tort.

  5. Hounslow London Borough Council v. Twickenham Garden Developments Ltd [1971] Ch 233: In this case, a landowner was found not liable for damage caused by roots from a tree on their land. The court held that the tree's growth was a natural use of land and not a non-natural use, and therefore, the principles of Rylands v. Fletcher did not apply.

These additional principles and cases provide further insight into the development and application of the Rylands v. Fletcher tort in UK tort law. While the fundamental principles of non-natural use, escape, and foreseeability remain consistent, the nuances in subsequent judgments illustrate the complexities involved in determining liability under this tort.


Hopefully this article cleared up any confusion you might have on the tort in Rylands v. Fletcher. Please feel free to leave a comment if there's anything you'd like clarifying!



The information provided in this blog post is based on the research I carried out for my law degree which I completed in 2020. I accept no responsibility for errors or omissions. Legal principles and interpretations may change over time, and the content presented here may not reflect the most current developments in UK contract law. This information is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be considered as legal advice or relied upon as a substitute for professional legal counsel. For the most up-to-date and accurate legal information or advice, it is advisable to consult with a qualified legal professional who is knowledgeable about the latest legal developments and can provide guidance specific to your situation.


how to get a first in law


If you found this article useful, you may also like:

How to Get a First in Law

How to Read Cases | Law Study Skills

Tips for First Year Law Students

Offer and Acceptance Problem Question Structure

What are Nominal Damages?

UK Criminal Law: Basic Principles

How to Study Law | Free Law Revision Timetable

Misrepresentation Problem Question Structure

Damages: The Test of Remoteness and Reasonable Foreseeability

Free Movement of Goods Problem Question Structure

Discretionary Trust or Power of Appointment?

Everything You Need to Know About the LNAT


Sample LNAT Essay: Why is Theft Wrong?

Sample LNAT Essay: Should Prisoners Have The Right To Vote?

Sample LNAT Essay: "A good sex education is vital in schools and shouldn't be subject to religious or cultural taboos." Discuss.

Sample LNAT Essay: How Should Judges Be Appointed?

Sample LNAT Essay: ‘It is right that students should contribute to the cost of their degrees.'  Do you agree?

Sample LNAT Essay: What disciplinary sanctions should teachers be allowed to use?

Sample LNAT Essay: Should private cars be rationed? If so, how?

Sample LNAT Essay: ‘We must be prepared to sacrifice traditional liberties to defeat terrorism.' Discuss

Sample LNAT Essay: Should the law require people to vote in general elections?

Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published.