The rule in Rylands v Fletcher imposes an exceptional form of strict liability. It was intended to protect the plaintiff’s interest by making the defendant strictly liable for damage caused without proof of fault on the defendant’s part.[1]


Rylands v Fletcher

In Rylands v Fletcher,[2] the defendants employed independent contractors to construct a reservoir on their land. The contractors found disused mines when digging but failed to seal them properly. They filled the reservoir with water. As a result, water flooded through the mineshafts into the plaintiff’s mines on the adjoining property. The Court of Exchequer Chamber held the defendant liable and the House of Lords affirmed their decision.[3]

Blackburn J in the Court of Exchequer Chamber[4] had introduced four elements required to establish strict liability under the rule in Rylands v Fletcher.

(a)   Dangerous things likely to cause damage if it escape

(b)  Intentional Accumulation

(c)   Escape

(d)  Non-natural use of land


Cambridge Water Co Ltd v Eastern Counties Leather plc

The water firm supplied an area of Cambridgeshire via a borehole in an aquifer. The water in the borehole was found contaminated by substances, including a chlorinated solvents(PCE).

This requirement of foreseeability to the recovery of damage has been recognised in House of Lords ruling in Cambridge Water where contamination resulting from the spill of chemicals used that contaminated the plaintiffs’ water supply 1.3 miles away was completely unforeseeable, so the defendant was held not liable.[5]


The undesirable effects of foreseeability


The undesirable effects of foreseeability requirement in strict liability are still founded in the society. Strict liability may gradually attenuate until its transition to fault liability.[6] The strict liability is closely related to nuisance because foreseeability of harm is a prerequisite to recover damage.[7]


Attaching foreseeability to Rylands v Fletcher caused the abandonment of its true relevance.  Foreseeability added to initial liability in nuisance and Rylands v Fletcher constitutes a major deviation from their underlying objective to protect the vulnerable interests in society.[8] In the case of Burnie Port Authority v General Jones Pty Ltd, [9] The High Court concluded that the elements of Rylands liability were now uncertain. The Court stated that the defences under Rylands were similar to negligence and concluded that ordinary negligence principles should now apply in the area with the duty of care being non-delegable. The Court stated that all cases previously decided under Rylands principles could have been dealt with under negligence principles and non-delegable principles and this approach were now preferable.


Lord Goff repeatedly speaks of the unforeseeability of the damage from the perspective of escape. It does not much related to the misreading of what Justice Blackburn said, and a misapplication of the Wagon Mound remoteness principle that is concerned not with foreseeability of the event causing the damage, but with foreseeability of the type of harm, should the event occur. In the instant case, we can see that although escape may not have been reasonably foreseeable, but the danger in the event of an escape of sufficient quantities of PCEs into the water was highly




The application of strict liability in the recent case

In Transco v Stockport MBC,[11] the House of Lords subjected the Rylands rule still has a part to play in English law. Lord Bingham emphasised the disadvantages which abolition of the rule could have for claimants obliged to discharge the burden of proving negligence against well-resourced corporate defendants.[12]

In Malaysian, the acceptance of the Rylands rule can be illustrated in Pacific Tin Consolidated Corp v Hoon Wee Thim[13], the Federal Court applied the rule in Ryland v v FIetcher, and upheld the decision of Gill J. for recovery of damages for the estate of the deceased Hoon Thye who had died by drowning in water which had escaped in large quantities from the defendant’s water reservoir which was wrongly built above ground level on their land.


Reform and Conclusion

It is to recommend removing of all the unnecessary restrictions such as foreseeability in strict liability.[14] The plaintiff’s interest shall be protected notwithstanding the modern trend of rapidly increasing of industrialisation or modernisation.


[1] Torts Law Journal Australia Vol2 1994 TLJ 7 p.2(ibid)

[2] (1868)LR 3 HL 330.

[3] Ibid p.3

[4] [1866] LR1 Ex265

[5] Paula&Silas, Tort 3rd Edition p.332.

[6] The Philosophy of Law, England1993, p.21.

[7] [1994]4 CLJ ci Dec

[8] Wan Azlan, Principles of Law of Tort in Malaysia p.153.

[9] (1994) 179 CLR 520

[10] Ibid p.23

[11] [2003] UKHL 61

[12] Clerk&Lindsell, Torts 4th Supp to 18th Edition p.419

[13] [1967] 2 MLJ 35

[14] Ibid p.19