Case Analysis- Cambridge Water Co Ltd v. Eastern Counties Leather Plc.

Cambridge Water Co Ltd (Claimant) v. Eastern Counties Leather Plc (Defendant)

Cambridge Water Co Ltd v. Eastern Counties Leather plc ([1994] 2 AC 264) is an English tort law case, wherein the principle of the requirement of foreseeability of damages, for claims under nuisance and negligence was established.

The facts of the case were as follows-

The Defendants had a business of leather tanning at Sawston, since 1879. The tanning process required that pelts should be decreased. For this purpose, ECL used two types of chlorinated carbons – Trichloroethene (TCE) and Perchloroethene (PCE). TCE and PCE, which have considerable health risk, were spilt on the floor of the building in which they carried out their activities. Tests of the water that had been conducted before 1979 had proved the water to be fit for drinking.

In 1980, the European Community and World Health Organization set standards for the presence of TCE and PCE in drinking water. However, these solvents had eventually seeped through the building floor into the soil and contaminated the Claimant’s borehole at Sawston Mill near Cambridge (approximately 1.3 miles away). CWC was created under its own Act of Parliament in 1853 and is a licensed supplier of water following the implementation of the Water Act 1989.

The borehole was used to extract and supply water to local residents. Before the borehole was purchased, tests conducted showed that the water was wholesome to drink. However, when checks were conducted again in 1983, it was found that this water could not be safely used by the Claimants as the quantity of PCE and TCE was considerably high as compared to the standard fixed by the EC and WHO. After failing in their attempts to decontaminate the water, the Claimants were forced to shut down the borehole and build a new borehole in a zone that was not polluted. They brought a claim against the Defendants on the grounds of nuisance, negligence and the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher.

The issue dealt in the case was as follows- 

 Whether the rules for the remoteness of damage and foreseeability of the type of damage caused apply to cases involving the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher and nuisance in the same way they do for negligence cases.

The Court’s judgement was as follows-

Initially, the case went to the High Court of Justice, where Kennedy J rejected rights under nuisance, negligence and Rylands v. Fletcher because the detriment was not conceivable. His decision was reversed by the Court of Appeal of England and Wales that held “ where the nuisance is an interference with a natural right incident to ownership then the liability is a strict one”. This decision was taken relying on the case Ballard v. Tomlinson[1]. The case then went to the House of Lords on appeal by ECL.

The House of Lord’s judgement was read by Lord Goff. He countered the Court of Appeal’s decision and restored the high court of justice’s judgement. He held that the necessity to prove foreseeability of the type of damage suffered and to deal with the remoteness of damage applies equally to cases based on negligence, nuisance and the rule in Rylands v. Fletcher (Here[2]. In nuisance, Defendant can be liable even if he has taken reasonable care, but this is kept under control by the principle that a defendant is not liable for actions a reasonable user takes on his land. He held that foreseeability of damage was an essential part of determining liability in nuisance as well as negligence.

Further, he also argued that Rylands was a sub-set of nuisance and not an independent tort. Liability under Rylands for the escape of materials from land is dependent upon proof of the foreseeability of damage of the relevant type. Here, it was not established that the defendants could have foreseen the damage which was in fact caused. The damage, in this case, was too remote as it was not possible for the Defendants to reasonably foresee a spillage which would eventually lead to contamination of a water borehole so far away. Therefore, the Defendants were not liable for the damage.


The Cambridge Water Company case brought not only a drastic change in law but also a significant one. It was successful in individually adding more to the established foundation of tort law than any other cases. It was the first decision that made the requirement of foreseeability of harm, an important condition for claiming damages even under cases that are governed by the principle established in Ryland v. Fletcher.

It was also established for the first time that Rylands was an independent tort and that knowledge has always been meant to be a pre-requisite for imposing liability. It was able to bring negligence closer to nuisance and the differences between nuisance, wherever existed, have been eliminated. Thus, it has helped to make torts law more uniform. However, it also points out to the disparities in the law of torts. It casts doubts upon the requirement of retaining the rule established in Rylands case at all.

The judgement of this case has been criticised for being ambiguous in nature. Academic Tom Clearwater, believed that Goff overstepped an appropriate reach of interpretation by drawing the conclusion that Rylands always intended foreseeability to be a factor for determining liability.[3] It was claimed that the judgement was not sufficiently clear to completely write out the possibility of Rylands v. Fletcher being a completely distinct doctrine (Here)[4] However, this was eventually concluded in the 2003 case of Transco plc v Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council (Here).[5]

 [1] Ballard v. Tomlinson, [1885] 29 ChD 115.

[2] Rylands v. Fletcher, [1868] UKHL 1.

[3] Tom Clearwater, “Cambridge Water Company Ltd v. Eastern Counties Leather plc.,” SLR, vol. 58, no. 2, 1994, pp. 338.

[4]  Peter B. Kutner, “THE END OF RYLANDS v. FLETCHER? CAMBRIDGE WATER CO Ltd v. EASTERN COUNTIES LEATHER Plc,” TILJ, vol. 31, no. 1, 1995, pp. 73–101. JSTOR, (Last visited on 12 June 2020).

[5] Transco Plc v. Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, [2003] UKHL 61.

Author: Sakshi Sharma,
NUJS, first year

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