Citation. L.R. 1 Ex. 265 (Exchequer Chamber, 1866)
Rylands owned a reservoir that sat on top of abandoned mining shafts that were filled with subsoil. Water from the reservoir burst into the shafts and travelled to mines used by Fletcher, flooding them.
A person who for his own purposes brings anything onto his land that is likely to do damage if it escapes is prima facie liable for all damages that are a natural consequence of its escape.
A reservoir owned by Rylands broke into ancient mining shafts below it that were connected to mines used by Fletcher, causing Fletcher’s mines to flood. When building the reservoir, Rylands’ engineers discovered these abandoned mining shafts that were filled with subsoil beneath the reservoir, but they did not inspect where these shafts went. Rylands operated in total ignorance of the latent defect found in the subsoil that allowed the flooding to occur.
May Fletcher recover any damages from Rylands?
Yes, Fletcher can recover damages from Rylands.
Though Fletcher is free from blame, he must bear the loss unless he can prove that the flooding occurred under an obligation for which Rylands was responsible.
Rylands has an obligation to maintain the reservoir, though harmless on his own land, if it escapes onto the land of others and creates mischief. That obligation is an absolute duty, and not merely a duty to take all reasonable and prudent precautions. As such, Rylands is prima facie liable for all damage consequential to the reservoir’s mischief (i.e., the flooding of Fletcher’s mine).
While the Exchequer Court noted that damage to personal property necessitates negligence on the part of the wrongdoer, negligence is not required in this case because Fletcher was totally unaware of the risks presented by the abandoned mining shafts and could not control Rylands’ operation of his reservoir to prevent the shafts from flooding.