Walker Morris on Rylands v Fletcher: nuisance and the danger with delay

Willis v Derwentshire was a claim for damages in nuisance, negligence and under the rule in Rylands v Fletcher, arising from the escape of dangerous gas from land owned by the defendant (the council).

The claimants owned a house and garden, and occupied neighbouring land which they used as a smallholding, adjacent to land comprising extensive disused underground coal workings which had been purchased by the Council from the National Coal Board in 1978. The Council’s purchase was subject to covenants that it would infill and maintain abandoned coal workings and would indemnify the Coal Board against any liability or expense not associated with ongoing mining operations after the date of the conveyance. Immediately south of the claimants’ garden lay the mouth of an abandoned coal drift (or tunnel). The combination of reduced oxygen and increased carbon dioxide in the workings produced emissions of large quantities of stythe gas, which can cause loss of consciousness and asphyxiation. The claimants were temporarily evacuated from their property in 2006, due to a perceived unacceptable risk to their safety, while a programme of remedial works was undertaken by the (now) Coal Authority but paid for by the Council…

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