Rainham Chemical Works Ltd (in liquidation) and others v Belvedere Fish Guano Co Ltd: HL 1921

At a time of war, a process was invented where picric acid was manufactured from dinitrophenol (DNP) and nitrate of soda. DNP had been used mainly for the manufacture of dyes, and was a stable compound which did not explode easily. It was not in itself dangerous. Nitrate of soda was not an explosive but wood or bags impregnated with moist nitrate of soda will, when dry, burn fiercely if ignited. A hot flame is needed to ignite it and when ignited, large quantities of DNP become a dangerous explosive. While neither DNP nor nitrate of soda was, in itself, dangerous, they became a source of danger if stored in quantities and in close proximity to one another. It was proved that that was the cause of a massive explosion which caused damage to neighbouring property. On the evidence the manufacture of picric acid from DNP and nitrate of soda might or might not be dangerous in its character, but in that case it was being manufactured under dangerous conditions, and those dangerous conditions caused the accident. Accordingly the principle of Rylands v. Fletcher became applicable. It was not, per Lord Carson, ‘seriously argued’ that the defendant company was not liable for the damages caused by the explosion. Before Scrutton LJ, the trial judge, it was admitted that the person in possession of the DNP was liable under the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher for the consequences of the explosion.
Held: The disputed question was whether responsibility lay at the door of the defendant company or the personal defendants who had a licence from the inventor to manufacture the required picric acid.
Lord Buckmaster said: ‘Now, the foundation of the action was a claim based upon the familiar doctrine established by the case of Fletcher v. Rylands, which depends upon this – that even apart from negligence the use of land by one person in an exceptional manner that causes damage to another, and not necessarily an adjacent owner, is actionable: . .In the present case the use complained of was that for the purpose of making munitions, which was certainly not the common and ordinary use of the land, two substances, namely, nitrate of soda and dinitrophenol, were stored in close proximity, with the result that on a fire breaking out they exploded with terrific violence. It may be accepted that it was not known to either of the defendants that this danger existed, but that in itself affords no excuse, and the result is that the plaintiffs’ cause of action is well founded and the only matter for determination is against whom the action should be brought.’ . . and ‘If the company was really trading independently on its own account, the fact that it was directed by Messrs Feldman and Partridge would not render them responsible for its tortious acts unless, indeed, they were acts expressly directed by them. If a company is formed for the express purpose of doing a wrongful act or if, when formed, those in control expressly direct that a wrongful thing be done, the individuals as well as the company are responsible for the consequences, but there is no evidence in the present case to establish liability under either of these heads.’
Lord Buckmaster
[1921] 2 AC 465, [1921] All ER 48
England and Wales
CitedRylands v Fletcher HL 1868
The defendant had constructed a reservoir to supply water to his mill. Water escaped into nearby disused mineshafts, and in turn flooded the plaintiff’s mine. The defendant appealed a finding that he was liable in damages.
Held: The defendant . .

Cited by:
CitedTransco plc v Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council HL 19-Nov-2003
Rylands does not apply to Statutory Works
The claimant laid a large gas main through an embankment. A large water supply pipe nearby broke, and very substantial volumes of water escaped, causing the embankment to slip, and the gas main to fracture.
Held: The rule in Rylands v Fletcher . .
CitedMCA Records Inc and Another v Charly Records Ltd and others (No 5) CA 5-Oct-2001
The court discussed the personal liability of a director for torts committed by his company: ‘i) a director will not be treated as liable with the company as a joint tortfeasor if he does no more than carry out his constitutional role in the . .
CitedStannard (T/A Wyvern Tyres) v Gore CA 4-Oct-2012
The defendant, now appellant, ran a business involving the storage of tyres. The claimant neighbour’s own business next door was severely damaged in a fire of the tyres escaping onto his property. The court had found him liable in strict liability . .
CitedCampbell v Gordon SC 6-Jul-2016
The employee was injured at work, but in a way excluded from the employers insurance cover. He now sought to make the sole company director liable, hoping in term to take action against the director’s insurance brokers for negligence, the director . .

Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.
Updated: 08 October 2021; Ref: scu.188016