John Rylands and Jehu Horrocks Plaintiffs in Error; and Thomas Fletcher Defendant in Error

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
CourtHouse of Lords

Mine - Negligence - Use of own Property - Water.

Where the owner of land, without wilfulness or negligence, uses his land in the ordinary manner of its use, though mischief should thereby be occasioned to his neighbour, he will not be liable in damages.

But if he brings upon his land any thing which would not naturally come upon it, and which is in itself dangerous, and may become mischievous if not kept under proper control, though in so doing he may act without personal wilfulness or negligence, he will be liable in damages for any mischief thereby occasioned.

A. was the lessee of mines. B. was the owner of a mill standing on land adjoining that under which the mines were worked. B. desired to construct a reservoir, and employed competent persons, an engineer and a contractor, to construct it. A. had worked his mines up to a spot where there were certain old passages of disused mines; these passages were connected with vertical shafts which communicated with the land above, and which had also been out of use for years, and were apparently filled with marl and the earth of the surrounding land. No care was taken by the engineer or the contractor to block up these shafts, and shortly after water had been introduced into the reservoir it broke through some of the shafts, flowed through the old passages and flooded A.'s mine:—

Held, that A. was entitled to recover damages from B. in respect of this injury.

THIS was a proceeding in Error against a judgment of the Exchequer Chamber, which had reversed a previous judgment of the Court of Exchequer.

In November, 1861, Fletcher brought an action against Ryland & Horrocks, to recover damages for an injury caused to his mines by water overflowing into them from a reservoir which the Defendants had constructed. The declaration contained three counts, and each count alleged negligence on the part of the Defendants, but in this House the case was ultimately treated upon the principle of determining the relative rights of the parties independently of any question of personal negligence by the Defendants in the exercise of them.

The cause came on for trial at the Liverpool Summer Assizes of 1862, when it was referred to an arbitrator, who was afterwards directed, instead of making an award, to prepare a special case for the consideration of the Judges. This was done, and the case was argued in the Court of Exchequer in Trinity Term, 1865.

The material facts of the case were these:— The Plaintiff was the lessee of certain coal mines known as the Red House Colliery, under the Earl of Wilton. He had also obtained from two other persons, Mr Hulton and Mr. Whitehead, leave to work for coal under their lands. The positions of the various properties were these:— There was a turnpike road leading from Bury to Bolton, which formed a southern boundary to the properties of these different persons. A parish road, called the Old Wood Lane, formed their northern boundary. These roads might be described as forming two sides of a square, of which the other two sides were formed by the lands of Mr. Whitehead on the east and Lord Wilton on the west. The Defendants' grounds lay along the turnpike road, or southern boundary, stretching from its centre westward. On these grounds were a mill and a small old reservoir. The proper grounds of the Red House Colliery also lay, in part, along the southern boundary, stretching from its centre eastward. Immediately north of the Defendants' land lay the land of Mr. Hulton, and still farther north that of Lord Wilton. On this land of Lord Wilton the Defendants, in 1860, constructed (with his Lordship's permission) a new reservoir, the water from which would pass almost in a southerly direction across a part of the land of Lord Wilton and the land of Mr. Hulton, and so reach the Defendant's mill. The line of direction from this new reservoir to the Red Colliery mine was nearly south-east.

The Plaintiff, under his lease from Lord Wilton, and under his agreements with Messrs. Hulton and Whitehead, worked the mines under their respective lands. In the course of doing so, he came upon old shafts and passages of mines formerly worked, but of which the workings had long ceased; the origin and the existence of these shafts and passages were unknown. The shafts were vertical, the passages horizontal, and the former especially seemed filled with marl and rubbish. Defendants employed for the purpose of constructing their new reservoir persons who were admitted to be competent as engineers and contractors to perform the work, and there was no charge of negligence made against the Defendants personally. But in the course of excavating the bed of the new reservoir, five old shafts, running vertically downwards, were met with in the portion of the land selected for its site. The case found that “on the part of the Defendants there was no personal negligence or default whatever in or about, or in relation to, the selection of the said site, or in or about the planning or construction of the said reservoir; but, in point of fact, reasonable and proper care and skill were not exercised by, or on the part of, the persons so employed by them, with reference to the shafts so met with as aforesaid, to provide for the sufficiency of the said reservoir to bear the pressure of water which, when filled to the height proposed, it would have to bear.”

The reservoir was completed at the beginning of December, 1860, and on the morning of the 11th of that month the reservoir, being then partially filled with water, one of the aforesaid vertical shafts gave way, and burst downwards, in consequence of which the water of the reservoir flowed into the old passages and coal-workings underneath, and by means of the underground communications then existing between them and the Plaintiff's workings in the Red House Colliery, the colliery was flooded and the workings thereof stopped.

The question for the opinion of the Court was whether the Plaintiff was entitled to recover damages by reason of the matters hereinbefore stated. The Court of Exchequer, Mr. Baron Bramwell dissenting, gave judgment for the DefendantsF1. That judgment was afterwards reversed in the Court of Exchequer ChamberF2. The case was then brought on Error to this House.

Sir R. Palmer, Q.C., and Mr. T. Jones, Q.C., for the Defendants (now Plaintiffs in Error):—

In considering this case it is important to remember that the communications between the workings of the Plaintiff and the old shafts and pits were not known to the Defendants. The question, therefore, is, whether they can be held responsible for an injury which, as the possible cause of it was unknown to them, they could not by any care on their part prevent. It is submitted that they are not liable. Every man has a right to use his own land for lawful purposes, and if he does so, and does so without knowledge that he will thereby occasion injury to another, he cannot be held responsible should injury occur. For that is a case which comes within the legal description of damnum absque injuriâ. The principle adopted by the Exchequer Chamber here, that though a man uses his lawful rights without malice and without knowledge of danger, he may still be liable for any mischief occurring from such use, is too wide. It would make every man responsible for every mischief he occasioned, however involuntarily, or even unconsciously. Now knowledge of possible mischief is of the very essence of the liability incurred by occasioning it: Acton v. BlundellF3; Chasemore v. RichardsF4. That has always been recognised as one of the principles of our law, and has, as such, been adopted by the Courts in America: Pixley v. ClarkF5. Smith v. KenrickF6 shewed that where two rivers lay contiguous to each other, but neither was subject to a servitude to the other, each owner had a right to work his own mine in the best way for his own benefit, and, if he did so without negligence, was not liable to the other for prejudice to his property which might thereby arise. That case is very important, for there...

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