Sedleigh-Denfield v O’Callaghan: HL 24 Jun 1940

Occupier Responsible for Nuisance in adopting it

A trespasser laid a drain along a ditch on the defendant’s land. Later the defendants came to use the drain themselves. A grate was misplaced by them so that in a heavy rainstorm, it became clogged with leaves, and water flowed over into the plaintiff’s neighbouring land.
Held: The defendants were liable. Though the drain had been placed by a trespasser, they had adopted it. An occupier of land is liable for the continuance of a nuisance created by others if he continues or adopts it. An occupier will be liable for continuing a nuisance created by another person if, with knowledge or presumed knowledge of its existence, he or she fails to take reasonable means to bring it to an end when they had ample time to do so.
Lord Atkin said: ‘For the purpose of ascertaining whether as here the plaintiff can establish a private nuisance I think that nuisance is sufficiently defined as a wrongful interference with another’s enjoyment of his land or premises by the use of land or premises either occupied or in some cases owned by oneself. The occupier or owner is not an insurer; there must be something more than the mere harm done to the neighbour’s property to make the party responsible. Deliberate act or negligence is not an essential ingredient but some degree of personal responsibility is required, which is connoted in my definition of my word ‘use’. This conception is implicit in all the decisions which impose liability only where the defendant has ’caused or continued’ the nuisance.’ and
‘The ground of responsibility is the possession and control of the land from which the nuisance proceeds. The principle has been expressed in the maxim ‘Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas’. This, like most maxims, is not only lacking in definiteness but is also inaccurate. An occupier may make in many ways a use of his land which causes damage to the neighbouring landowners and yet be free from liability . . a useful test is perhaps what is reasonable according to the ordinary uses of mankind living in society, or, more correctly, in a particular society . . Even where he is liable for a nuisance, the redress may fall short of the damage.’
Lord Wright said: ‘A balance has to be maintained between the right of the occupier to do what he likes with his own, and the right of his neighbour not to be interfered with. It is impossible to give any precise or universal formula, but it may broadly be said that a useful test is perhaps what is reasonable according to the ordinary usages of mankind living in society, or more correctly in a particular society. The forms which nuisance may take are protean’ and
‘Though the rule has not been laid down by this House, it has I think been rightly established in the Court of Appeal that an occupier is not prima facie responsible for a nuisance created without his knowledge and consent. If he is to be liable a further condition is necessary, namely, that he had knowledge or means of knowledge, that he knew or should have known of the nuisance in time to correct it and obviate its mischievous effects. The liability for a nuisance is not, at least in modern law, a strict or absolute liability . . [He] may have taken over a nuisance . . or the nuisance may be due a latent defect or to the act of a trespasser, or stranger. Then he is not liable unless he continued or adopted the nuisance, or, more accurately, did not without undue delay remedy it when he became aware of it, or with ordinary and reasonable care should have become aware of it.’
Lord Porter considered the suggestion that the occupier knew only of the possibility that the pipe might become blocked: ‘In a sense this is true, the nuisance is not the existence of the pipe unprotected by a grid but the flooding of the appellant’s garden-flooding which might be repeated at any time of severe rain . . But the respondents had, as I have indicated, or ought to have had knowledge of the danger, and could have prevented the danger if they had acted reasonably. For this I think they were liable – not because they were negligent, though it may be that they were, but for nuisance because with knowledge that a state of things existed which might at any time give rise to a nuisance they took no steps to remedy that state of affairs.’
Maugham V said: ‘In my opinion an occupier of land ‘continues’ a nuisance if with knowledge or presumed knowledge he fails to take any reasonable means to bring it to an end, though with ample time to do so . . He ‘adopts’ it if he makes any use of the erection, building, bank or artificial contrivance which constitutes the nuisance.’ and ‘On the other hand there is no doubt that if an owner of land for his own convenience diverts or interferes with the course of a stream he must take care that the new course provided for it shall be sufficient to prevent mischief from an overflow to his neighbours’ land, and that he will prima facie be liable if such an overflow should take place: Fletcher v Smith (1877) 2 App. Cas. 781; as to which see Greenock Corporation v Caledonian Ry. Co. [1917] A.C. 556. It would be a defence to prove that the overflow was due to a rainfall or a storm so exceptional that it should be regarded as an act of God; no doubt it would also be a defence, subject to a qualification I will mention later, to prove that the overflow was caused by the interference of a trespasser’. And ‘All that is necessary in such a case is to show that the owner or occupier of the land with such a possible cause of nuisance upon it knows or must be taken to know of it. An absentee owner or an occupier oblivious of what is happening under his eyes is in no better position than the man who looks after his property.’

Viscount Maugham, Lord Atkin, Lord Wright, Lord Porter
[1940] AC 880, [1940] 3 All ER 349, [1940] 56 TLR 887, [1940] UKHL 2
England and Wales
Dissenting judgment ApprovedJob Edwards Ltd v Birmingham Navigations Proprietors CA 1924
Land next to the canal was used for the deposit of refuse by trespassers. The mound spread until, for a fee, it was dumped also across the canal. It caught fire, and the fire spread toward the canal. By agreement the parties got together to put out . .
CitedTod-Heatley v Benham 1888
What was ‘annoyance’ between neighbours
The court considered how to construe a covenant in a lease ‘nor do or wittingly or willingly cause or suffer to be done any act, matter, or thing in or upon or about the said premises, which shall or may be or grow to the annoyance, nuisance, . .

Cited by:
CitedMowan v London Borough of Wandsworth and Another CA 21-Dec-2000
The claimant tenant sought damages from the landlord and neighbour and fellow tenant for nuisance caused by the neighbour’s aberrant behaviour.
Sir Christopher Staughton said: ‘there is a strong trend in the cases in favour of the landlord who . .
FollowedPride of Derby and Derbyshire Angling Association Ltd v British Celanese Ltd CA 1953
The plaintiff brought an action for nuisance against the local authority for having discharged insufficiently treated effluent into the river Derwent.
Held: The plaintiffs: ‘have a perfectly good cause of action for nuisance, if they can show . .
AppliedTennant Radiant Heat Ltd v Warrington Development Corporation 1988
A property comprised a large building let on fully repairing leases of 22 units. The many rain outlets were allowed to become blocked, and water accumulated above one unit before that part of the roof collapsed. The landlord appealed a finding that . .
CitedHunter and Others v Canary Wharf Ltd HL 25-Apr-1997
The claimant, in a representative action complained that the works involved in the erection of the Canary Wharf tower constituted a nuisance in that the works created substantial clouds of dust and the building blocked her TV signals, so as to limit . .
CitedGorringe v Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council HL 1-Apr-2004
Statutory Duty Not Extended by Common Law
The claimant sought damages after a road accident. The driver came over the crest of a hill and hit a bus. The road was not marked with any warning as to the need to slow down.
Held: The claim failed. The duty could not be extended to include . .
CitedArscott and others v Coal Authority and Another CA 13-Jul-2004
The defendant had deposited coal wastes. When the river Taff flooded, the spoil heaps diverted the floods to damage the claimants’ homes. They appealed refusal of their claims in nuisance. The judge applied the common enemy rule: ‘an owner or . .
CitedBybrook Barn Garden Centre Ltd and Others v Kent County Council CA 8-Jan-2001
A culvert had been constructed taking a stream underneath the road. At the time when it came into the ownership of the local authority, it was adequate for this purpose. Later developments increased the flow, and the culvert came to become an . .
CitedAnthony and others v The Coal Authority QBD 28-Jul-2005
The claimants lived adjacent to an old coal tip, which caught fire spontaneously and burned for three years. They claimed in nuisance. The defendant argued that the risk of spontaneous ombustion was not reasonable, and that the use was safe.
AppliedRegina v Shorrock CACD 1993
The defendants used land for an unauthorised ‘acid party’ which caused substantial inconvenience and disruption to neighbours. The defendant denied that he had had the requisite knowledge to be criminally liable.
Held: This was capable of . .
CitedRegina v Rimmington; Regina v Goldstein HL 21-Jul-2005
Common Law – Public Nuisance – Extent
The House considered the elements of the common law offence of public nuisance. One defendant faced accusations of having sent racially offensive materials to individuals. The second was accused of sending an envelope including salt to a friend as a . .
CitedJackson v J H Watson Property Investment Ltd QBD 7-Jan-2008
The tenant claimant held under a 125 year lease of the defendant. A fault in a light well led to water ingress and damage. The fault was in the landlord’s land but not the flat. The tenant alleged a nuisance by the landlords. The landlord replied . .
CitedShine v Tower Hamlets CA 9-Jun-2006
The claimant a nine year old boy had attempted to leap frog a bollard. He was badly injured when it fell. The authority had identified that it was insecure some months earlier. The authority appealed a finding of negligence and breach of statutory . .
CitedLeakey v The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty CA 31-Jul-1979
Natural causes were responsible for soil collapsing onto neighbouring houses in Bridgwater.
Held: An occupier of land owes a general duty of care to a neighbouring occupier in relation to a hazard occurring on his land, whether such hazard is . .
CitedLambert and Others v Barratt Homes Ltd (Manchester Division) and Another QBD 17-Feb-2009
The claimant sought damages in nuisance and negligence saying that in constructing a new housing estate, they had altered the land in such a way as to lead to the repeated flooding of their home.
Held: Both the developer and the council were . .
CitedLambert and Others v Barratt Homes Ltd (Manchester Division) and Another QBD 17-Feb-2009
The claimant sought damages in nuisance and negligence saying that in constructing a new housing estate, they had altered the land in such a way as to lead to the repeated flooding of their home.
Held: Both the developer and the council were . .
DistinguishedLambert and Others v Barratt Homes Ltd and Another CA 16-Jun-2010
The claimants had bought houses from the first defendants, who in turn had bought the land from Rochdale, the second defendants. In preparing the land for construction the first defendants were said to have negligently filled in a drainage culvert . .
CitedAli v The City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council CA 17-Nov-2010
The claimant appealed against rejection of her claim for damages after slipping on a footpath maintainable by the defendant after an accumulation of mud and debris. The claim appeared to be the first under section 130, and the highway authority . .
CitedThornhill and Others v Nationwide Metal Recycling Ltd and Another CA 29-Jul-2011
The appellants challenged a decision that the defendants had ceased to be committing an actionable nuisance after erecting a sound barrier between their metal scrap yard and the claimants’ properties.
Held: The judge had correcly applied the . .
CitedPage Motors v Epsom Borough Council CA 9-Jul-1981
The plaintiffs were lessees of land neighbouring that of the Council. Over several years the council’s land had been occupied by gypsies who, it was said had damaged the plaintiff’s business. Though the Council had obtained a possession order in . .
CitedWillis and Another v Derwentside District Council ChD 10-Apr-2013
The claimants sought damages alleging the escape of noxious CO2 gas from the defendant’s neighbouring land. The gas originated from old coal workings.
Held: There had come to be a liability falling in the defendant from 2006. Its delay in . .
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 . .
CitedNetwork Rail Infrastructure Ltd v Williams and Another CA 3-Jul-2018
Japanese Knotweed escape is nuisance
The defendant appealed against an order as to its liability in private nuisance for the escape of Japanese Knotweed from its land onto the land of the claimant neighbours. No physical damage to properties had yet been shown, but the reduction in . .
CitedMiller v Jackson CA 6-Apr-1977
The activities of a long established cricket club had been found to be a legal nuisance, because of the number of cricket balls landing in the gardens of neighbouring houses. An injunction had been granted to local householders who complained of . .

Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Land, Nuisance

Leading Case

Updated: 02 November 2021; Ref: scu.186068