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Rylands v Fletcher [1868] UKHL 1 was a decision by the House of Lords which established a new area of English tort law. Rylands employed contractors to build a reservoir, playing no active role in its construction. When the contractors discovered a series of old coal shafts improperly filled with debris, they chose to continue work rather than properly blocking them up. The result was that on 11 December 1860, shortly after being filled for the first time, Rylands’s reservoir burst and flooded a neighbouring mine, run by Fletcher, causing £937 worth of damage.

Fletcher brought a claim under negligence, through which the case eventually went to the Exchequer of Pleas The majority ruled in favour of Rylands; however, Bramwell B, dissenting, argued that the claimant had the right to enjoy his land free of interference from water, and that as a result the defendant was guilty of trespass and the commissioning of a nuisance.

Bramwell’s argument was affirmed, both by the Court of Exchequer Chamber and the House of Lords, leading to the development of the “Rule in Rylands v Fletcher”; that “the person who for his own purpose 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”.

No right “to enjoy property” exists in UK black-letter law, and it is this decision upon which stare decisis in the area. This doctrine was further developed by English courts, and made an immediate impact on the law. Prior to Rylands, English courts had not based their decisions in similar cases on strict liability, and had focused on the intention behind the actions rather than the nature of the actions themselves. In contrast, Rylands imposed strict liability on those found detrimental in such a fashion without having to prove a duty of care or negligence, which brought the law into line with that relating to public reservoirs and marked a significant doctrinal shift. Academics have criticized it, however, both for the economic damage such a doctrine could cause and for its limited applicability.

The tort of Rylands v Fletcher has been disclaimed in various jurisdictions, including Scotland, where it was described as “a heresy that ought to be extirpated”,[3] and Australia, where the High Court chose to destroy the doctrine in Burnie Port Authority v General Jones Pty Ltd. Within England and Wales, however, Rylands remains valid law, although the decisions in Cambridge Water Co Ltd v Eastern Counties Leather plc and Transco plc v Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council make it clear that it is no longer an independent tort, but instead a sub-tort of nuisane.

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