Interrelationship of Law and Society – The rule of Rylands v Fletcher

January 8, 2024

We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. - Gilbert K. Chesterton

Interrelationship of Law and Society – The rule of Rylands v Fletcher

As humankind progressed from a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence to an agrarian society, and subsequently, toward an industrialised civilisation, a common feature emerged. We found ourselves living in increasingly close proximity. This led to the concept of “urbanisation”.

With increased human proximity, any actions gone awry have a higher risk of affecting our neighbours adversely. Common examples include dust, noise pollution, fallen trees, or fires-spreading whereas incidents which are less typical may be the escape of water or chemical substances causing floods or pollution.

When something does happen and it affects others, then these inconveniences may be actionable on a case-to-case basis under negligence, nuisance, rule of Rylands v Fletcher, or a combination of any of the above.

One of the main distinguishing factors under the Rylands v Fletcher rule is the requirement for an accumulation of dangerous substance which constitutes an unusual use of land. Once this has been established and there has been foreseeable damage due to the escape of the substance, the liability attributed to the defendant is of a strict nature,[1] i.e., the absence of fault or blame worthiness is immaterial.

Strict or selective liability?

The justification for strict liability was elaborated in the case of inception  ­̶  he who for his own purposes brings unto his lands and keeps there anything likely to do mischief must keep it at his peril.[2] In Rylands v Fletcher, the defendants had employed independent contractors to construct a reservoir on their land. While digging on the lands, the contractors found disused mines that they failed to seal properly. As a result, water flooded through the mineshafts into the plaintiff’s mines on the adjoining property.

As the activities of storage and accumulation of substances caught under the rule of Rylands v Fletcher by themselves are already potentially risky, it is only fair and right that such activities conducted intentionally and deliberately comes with a high price. This is reflected through the assignment of strict liability.[3]

The rule’s reasoning is easily relatable due to empathy towards the innocent victims. However, it is increasingly difficult for the rule to remain operative given the developments in judicial stance and concern that the rule is overly harsh towards defendants who may be similarly blameless.

Firstly, the creation of several defences and exceptions by the judiciary effectively restricts and restrains the applicability of the rule to a certain extent.

Secondly, the adjudication in Cambridge Water Co Ltd v Eastern Counties Leather plc[4] provides that the foreseeability of the type of damage is a prerequisite to liability. This appears to be an attempt to attribute a certain extent of culpability to the rule.

Thirdly, ever since the occurrence of industrial and scientific evolution, lands have been increasingly used for industrial processes. Gone are the days where land was used primarily for agricultural activities and human habitation. Advances in science and technology not only reduced instances of land used for natural purposes, but also mitigated previous reservations on using land for artificial or non-natural purposes.

There is no exception to the rule that every rule has an exception. - James Thurber

Types of Defences

Default of the plaintiff

If the damage is caused by the plaintiff’s own action or wrongdoing, he will not be compensated. In Ponting v Noakes,[5] the plaintiff's horse died after nibbling on some poisonous vegetation near the defendant's boundary. The English court held that the defendant was not liable for the horse’s own intrusion and action. Where the plaintiff is contributorily negligent, however, section 12 of the Civil Law Act 1956 will apply.

Consent of the plaintiff

In Malaysia, where the plaintiff had agreed to the non-natural use of land, he has no right of action unless he is able to prove negligence. This was seen in the case of Sheikh Amin bin Salleh v Chop Hup Seng,[6] which is in line with the English case of Kennard v Cory Bros & Co Ltd.[7]

Implied consent may also be raised if a tenant of the premise, allows the condition of adjoining premises to become such that the likelihood of an escape under the Rylands v Fletcher rule is probable, as decided in the English authority of Kiddle v City Business Properties Ltd.[8]

It is important to note that implied consent cannot be presumed just because the occupied land is situated near or adjacent to a premise where dangerous substances are accumulated on a daily/ordinary basis.[9] Similarly, occupation of a land in proximity to inherently dangerous and unsafe state of affairs or installations does not equate to implied consent.[10]

All of the above are not contradictory as the defence is only available within the context of a tenant-landlord relationship rather than just neighbours or tenants who are renting from the same landlord, as ruled in the case of Humphries v Cousins.[11] Parties who are neighbours are not deemed to have consented to inherently dangerous activities just by way of proximity.

Common benefit

Where the source of the danger is maintained for the common benefit of the plaintiff and the defendant, the rule under Rylands v Fletcher will not be established. This is by analogy similar to the defence of consent.

In the English cases of Carstairs v Taylor[12] and Dunne v North Western Gas Board,[13] the defendants were found to be not liable, subject of course, to the defendants’ non-negligence.

However, commentators no longer regard this as a defence. It is submitted that perhaps common benefit ought to be considered only as a factor in determining whether the plaintiff has consented to the risk of damage. This would eliminate common benefit as an independent defence and include it as an element of consent.[14]

Act of third party

The defendant is not liable where the escape of accumulated substance is due to an unforeseen act of a third party, provided that there is no negligence on the part of the defendant. In the English Court of Appeal case of Perry v Kendricks Transport Ltd, the court held that the basis of the defence is the absence of any control by the defendant over the acts of a stranger on his land.[15]

Notwithstanding that, a cause of action would succeed if the plaintiff could show that the act that caused the escape was one that the owner could have contemplated and taken reasonable precautions against. In Hale v Jenning Brothers,[16] the proprietor of a chair-o-plane was held liable for the escape of a chair caused by a passenger’s tampering that resulted in the plaintiff suffering severe injuries, whereas in North Western Utilities Ltd v London Guarantee & Accident Co Ltd,[17] the construction of a storm sewer beneath the defendant's underground gas pressure main caused it to crack and destroyed the hotel by fire.

However, academicians have argued that the legal doctrine upon which the cases ought to have been decided is mistaken as such cases involve common negligence and should not be classified as Rylands v Fletcher cases.[18] The reasoning is that the Rylands v Fletcher rule is a strict liability tort and therefore any negligence – as in breach of duty of care – on the part of the defendant is irrelevant in determining liability.[19] It should not matter that the defendant could or could not have reasonably foreseen the act of the stranger.

Act of God

An act of God refers to circumstances that are beyond anyone’s control which cannot be foreseen or guarded against. This defence will apply for natural disasters that is not within the foresight of the defendant.[20] Examples includes extraordinary rainfall, high wind and high tide tsunami, lightning, earthquakes, cloud burst and tornadoes.

Nonetheless, in situations where such natural disaster can be foreseen, the defence will not apply. In Kwan Sun Ming v Chak Chee Hing, it was held that in a towage contract, a storm must be expected and would have to be guarded against. For a storm at sea to be regarded as an act of God, it would have to be a storm that could not have been reasonably foreseen.[21]

It can be deduced that the objection against the defence for an act of a third party would similarly apply here since both are events with randomised probability beyond control. The Rylands v Fletcher rule is a strict liability tort and therefore it should not matter that the defendant could or could not have reasonably foreseen the act of God.

Statutory authority

Sometimes statutes, like section 95 of the Street, Drainage and Building Act 1974, affords state authorities or officers with immunity and exempts them from liability.  Whether they are exempted or not, and to what extent, is a question of statutory interpretation. For instance, sections 5, 6 and 7 of the Government Proceedings Act 1956 relating to proceedings by and against the Federal Government and the Governments of the States have been relied upon to establish legal actions against officers and vicariously, the government.

We must not look at a past incident with the spectacles from the future. - Lord Denning

Foreseeability of damage

The general tenor of Justice Blackburn's statement of principle Cambridge Water Co Ltd v Eastern Counties Leather plc is that knowledge, or at least foreseeability of the risk, is a prerequisite of the recovery of damages under the principle.[22]

What is unclear is whether it is only the kind of damage that needs to be foreseeable or that the escape must be foreseeable too. Lord Goff, in holding that the seepage of the chemical through the factory floor into the earth and subsequently into the water was unforeseeable, seemed to suggest that the escape too, need be foreseeable.[23]

In Malaysia, there is yet to be any case which relates specifically to the question regarding which element does foreseeability pertain to – the type of damage or the possibility of escape, but cases often quote the English judgment in verbatim, i.e. “it could not possibly have foreseen that damage of the type now complained of might be caused.”.

In Projek Lebuh Raya Utara-Selatan Sdn Bhd v Kim Seng Enterprise (Kedah) Sdn Bhd, the Court of Appeal stated that liability arose only if the defendant knew or ought reasonably to have foreseen that those things might, if they escaped, cause damage.[24]

Many academicians have also submitted that if the escape must also be foreseeable, the notion that the rule in Rylands v Fletcher connotes with it a strict liability would no longer hold true.[25] There will no longer be any element that is independent from the establishment of blameworthiness. The accumulation of dangerous substance which constitutes an unusual use of land, the foreseeability of type of damage and the foreseeability of escape will all be associated with fault. In Ellison v Ministry of Defence, it was suggested that it is only the type of damage and not the escape that must be foreseeable.[26]

What would be a nuisance in Belgrave square would not necessarily be so in Bermondsey. – Lord Justice Thesiger

Non-natural use of land

The judiciary has managed to keep up with the times when it comes to the development of the rule in Rylands v Fletcher. The case of Rainham Chemical Works v Belvedere Fish Guano[27] ruled that the use of land to build a factory for the manufacture of explosives was a non-natural use in 1920, but later in the 1940s, the House of Lords refused to consider itself bound by the same finding in light of the industrial activities during war time.[28]

Whether the use of the land is non-natural is a question of fact – factors such as time, location and ordinary activities of mankind must be taken into consideration.[29] Since storage of ammunitions is not a non-natural use of the land during wartime, the legal regime will not provide protection. Plaintiffs will have to resort to the tort of negligence, which is a separate cause of action with its own technicalities.

In British Celanese Ltd v AH Hunt (Capacitors) Ltd, the court refused to adjudge the manufacturing and storage of electrical and electronic components on a factory situated in an industrial area planned and laid out for the purpose of accommodating manufacturers in the year 1964 to be a special use of land.[30]

In Mason v Levy Auto Parts of England, the utilisation of land for the storage of spare parts for vehicles and other combustible materials was held by the judge to be non-natural because of three factors, one of it being the character of the neighbourhood.[31]

However, Lord Goff said in Cambridge Water Co Ltd v Eastern Counties Leather plc that “the storage of substantial quantities of chemicals on industrial premises should be regarded as an almost classic case of non-natural use”.[32] Malaysian academicians have expressed their reservations towards the statement and opine the decision to have been delivered by way of per incuriam.[33]

This was arguably settled in Transco plc v Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council where Lord Bingham made it clear that the rule will only apply to extraordinary and unusual use.[34] In line with majority of the cases mentioned above, it appears that locality is in fact a significant factor to be taken into consideration, similar to the quote under nuisance that “what would be a nuisance in Belgrave Square would not be so in Bermondsey”.[35]

Taking into consideration the Malaysian landscape, locality, custom and usual practice, the fact that city planning is mostly conducted based on functionality in most parts of the country (i.e., segregated into residential, business, and industrial areas), this would pose considerable challenge for plaintiffs as they need to establish that the use of land must be non-natural.


The study of interrelationships explores the connections between people and system. In the context of law and society, this perspective examines how urbanization has prompted the establishment of and reforms to legal frameworks to address disruptions among neighbours in land-related matters. It emphasizes the evolving dynamics between people and the legal system in response to societal changes.

In the attempt to keep up with times, the rule in Rylands v Fletcher has been expanded gradually over the years through the evolving judicial stance and interpretation as well as introduction of defences. Unfortunately, this has led to various differing views and dissents among the judiciary.

The attribution of the element of fault increasingly blurred the lines between negligence claims and Rylands v Fletcher actions, thereby causing greater confusion and uncertainty in relation to the continued relevancy and applicability of the latter in this age and time. This phenomenon is reflected in the limited number of case authorities in this respect compared to other causes of action in Malaysia.

Some academicians have suggested for the rule to apply to instances of ultra-hazardous activities or extraordinary use of land to avoid the rule from becoming obsolete. It would be interesting to witness the fate of the rule in Rylands v Fletcher within the Malaysian landscape from hereon – whether it would fall into disuse and lead a quiet death or be revived and transformed by the judiciary to adapt with the times.

If you have any questions or require any additional information, please contact Jeyakuhan Jeyasingam or the partner you usually deal with at Zaid Ibrahim & Co (in association with KPMG Law). This article was prepared with the assistance of Viviana Goh Wen Li, a Trainee Associate in Zaid Ibrahim & Co (in association with KPMG Law).

This article is for general information only and is not a substitute for legal advice.

[1] John Rylands and Jehu Horrocks v Thomas Fletcher (1868) LR 330 (HL).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Norchaya Talib, Torts in Malaysia (Sweet&Maxwell, 2021) p 442.

[4] Cambridge Water Co Ltd v Eastern Counties Leather plc [1994] 2 AC 264.

[5] Ponting v Noakes [1894] 2 QB 281.

[6] Sheikh Amin bin Salleh v Chop Hup Seng [1974] 2 MLJ 125.

[7] Kennard v Cory Bros & Co Ltd [1921] AC 521.

[8] Kiddle v City Business Properties Ltd [1942] 2 All ER 216.

[9] Thomas v Lewis [1937] 1 All ER 137.

[10] Prosser & Sons Ltd v Levy [1955] 3 All ER 577.

[11] Humphries v Cousins (1877) 2 CPD 239.

[12] Carstairs v Taylor [1871] LR 6 Ex 217.

[13] Dunne v North Western Gas Board [1964] QB 806.

[14] Donal Nolan and James Goudkamp, Winfield and Jolowicz on Tort (20th edn, Sweet & Maxwell, 2020) at 16-019 and 16-027. Common benefit is not included as a defence in Christian Witting, Street on Torts (15thedn, OUP, 2018).

[15] Perry v Kendricks Transport Ltd [1956] 1 WLR 85.

[16] Hale v Jenning Brothers [1938] 1 All ER 579.

[17] North Western Utilities Ltd v London Guarantee & Accident Co Ltd [1936] AC 108.

[18] Christian Witting, Street on Torts (15th edn, OUP, 2018) pp 466 and 467.

[19] Supra note 3 at p 442.

[20] Dr Syed Ahmad S A Alsagoff, The Law of Torts in Malaysia (LexisNexis, 2017) p 423.

[21] Kwan Sun Ming v Chak Chee Hing [1965] 1 MLJ 236 at 237.

[22] Supra note 4.

[23] Supra note 3 p 438.

[24] Projek Lebuh Raya Utara-Selatan Sdn Bhd v Kim Seng Enterprise (Kedah) Sdn Bhd [2013] 5 MLJ 360 at [120].

[25] Supranote 3 at pp 438 and 439.

[26] Ellison v Ministry of Defence (1996) 81 BLR 101.

[27] Rainham Chemical Works v Belvedere Fish Guano [1921] 2 AC 465.

[28] Read v J Lyons & Co Ltd [1947] AC 156.

[29] Ibid at 176.

[30] British Celanese v Hunt [1969] 1 WLR at 963.

[31] Mason v Levy Auto Parts of England [1967] 2 QB 530.

[32] Supra note 4.

[33] Supra note 20 at p 420.

[34] Transco plc v Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council [2004] 2 AC 1.

[35] Sturges v Bridgman (1879) 11 ChD 852.

Partner, Jeyakuhan Jeyasingam, delves into the progression of the Rylands v Fletcher rule in keeping up with the times.