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Why Sedleigh-Denfield v O’Callaghan is important

In Sedleigh-Denfield v O’Callaghan, the Court clarified when a person is liable in nuisance for the act of a stranger. In the case, the defendant was held liable because they had ‘continued’ and ‘adopted’ the nuisance.

 

held that reasonableness is judged according to the ordinary usage of mankind living in society. However, they held that an occupier continued a nuisance if, in circumstances in which he knew or should have known of its existence, he failed to take any reasonable means to bring it to an end, although he had ample time to do so.

Facts

The council undertook some work on the defendant’s land to build fitted pipes supplying water to nearby flats. The defendant was not informed by the council about the existence of the pipes on their land. The workers negligently placed the gate in the wrong place and therefore prone to blockages.

The defendant hired workers to clean the channel periodically over a three year period to prevent blockages. However, a heavy rainstorm caused a blockage and the ditch became flooded. The flood spread to the claimant’s neighbouring property and caused substantial damage.

Claim

The claimant brought an action against the defendant in the tort of private nuisance, seeking damages for the damage caused. The defendant argued he was not liable because he had no knowledge of the gate’s fitting nor consented to it.

Issue

Whether it was a defense for the defendant that they were not aware the gate would be fitted nor consented to its existence.

Held

The House of Lords held that the defendant was liable in the tort of nuisance.

Reasoning

The House of Lords held that the defendant was liable for damages because they had continued and adopted the nuisance. The defendant had ‘continued’ the nuisance by failing to prevent the ditch from becoming blocked. Similarly, they had also adopted the nuisance, by using the pipe for getting rid of water from their property without making it safe.

Lord Maugham observed:

My Lords, in the present case I am of opinion that the Respondents both continued and adopted the nuisance. After the lapse of nearly three years they must be taken to have suffered the nuisance to continue; for they neglected to take the very simple step of placing a grid in the proper place which would have removed the danger to their neighbour’s land. They adopted the nuisance for they continued during all that time to use the artificial contrivance of the conduit for the purpose of getting rid of water from their property without taking the proper means for rendering it safe.

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