Summary: A seminal case in the the area of torts law and strict liability for ultrahazardous activities.
The case involved Defendants who had built a water reservoir on their property above abandoned mine shafts. Defendants had obtained permission of the adjacent landowner before building the reservoir and they had employed a competent engineer and contractor to construct it.
Notwithstanding those precautions, the water burst through into one of the shafts and flooded Plaintiffs’ coal mine. Although Defendants were unaware of the shafts and were found not negligent, the English House of Lords nonetheless concluded that Defendants were liable, stating:
If the Defendants … had desired to use . . . [their land] for any purpose which I may term a non-natural use . . . and if in consequence of their doing so, or in consequence of any imperfection in the mode of their doing so, the water came to escape . . ., that which the Defendants were doing they were doing at their own peril; and, if in the course of their doing it, the evil arose . . ., then for the consequence of that, in my opinion, the Defendants would be liable.
The doctrine of Rylands has been explained and codified in the Restatement (Second) of Torts, section 519 (1977): “One who carries on an abnormally dangerous activity is subject to liability for harm to the person, land or chattels of another resulting from the activity, although he has exercised the utmost care to prevent the harm.”
Further, Section 520 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts sets forth six factors relevant to a determination of whether an activity is abnormally dangerous: (a) existence of a high degree of risk of some harm to the person, land or chattels of others; (b) likelihood that the harm that results from it will be great; (c) inability to eliminate the risk by the exercise of reasonable care; (d) extent to which the activity is not a matter of common usage; (e) inappropriateness of the activity to the place where it is carried on; and (f) extent to which its value to the community is outweighed by its dangerous attributes.