What is the Tort of Interference with Land? What is the rule in Rylands v Fletcher?

Last updated on December 13, 2023

The rule in Rylands v Fletcher (“Rylands”) is a tort of interference with land (a tort is a civil wrong committed against another person or property). The rule in Rylands covers situations where damage is caused arising from the escape of dangerous things from the defendant’s land in the course of a non-natural use of land. The damage suffered by the plaintiff must be foreseeable by the defendant. The rule in Rylands was endorsed by the Singapore Courts in the case of Tesa Tape, and is thus good law in Singapore.

To enforce the rule in Rylands, a plaintiff must show the following elements:

  1. The non-natural use of land
  2. The escape of the ‘thing’
  3. A ‘thing’ is likely to do mischief if it escapes, and
  4. Damage was caused to the plaintiff.

Under the first element, the non-natural use of the land suffices only when a special use of the land brings with it an increased danger to others. It must not be the ordinary use of the land or such a use that is proper for the general benefit of the community. Further, if the damage arising from the use of the land is reasonably expected by the occupier, it will not be regarded as non-natural. For instance, in the Tesa Tape case, where the defendant stacked containers on a piece of land that was not meant for this purpose and its unexpected collapse resulted in the damage of the plaintiff’s property, this was considered to be an unnatural use of the land.

Under the second element, the ‘thing’ that has escaped must have been brought into the defendant’s land and collected there. Moreover, the ‘escape’ must be one that escaped from the place which the defendant has occupation of or control over, to a place outside of his occupation or control.

Under the third element, the ‘thing’ must be likely to do mischief. That is to mean that the ‘thing’ must have brought with it an ‘increased danger’ to others. This does not mean to say that the ‘thing’ must be inherently dangerous, but a thing that is ordinarily not a source of danger might be regarded as likely to do mischief in certain circumstances and this is enough to satisfy this criteria. An example to illustrate this point would be the seeping of water from the pipe causing damage to art works in an art gallery.

Lastly, for the final element, the plaintiff must show that the damage suffered was foreseeable by the defendant, and was caused by the defendant, to the plaintiff. For example, in PEX International Pte Ltd v Lim Seng Chye, it was found that the damage by fire caused by PEX to Lim was reasonably foreseeable and PEX was thus liable under the rule in Rylands. PEX had authorised its contractor to undertake renovation works on its land which included hot works that gave rise to a “foreseeable risk of damage” to Lim’s land.

Foreseeability is often used by the court as a limiting factor to liability. Otherwise, businessmen and commonfolk alike run the risk of attracting liability for damage caused that could not have been prevented notwithstanding the utmost and greatest care taken.

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