Donoghue v Stevenson  SC (HL) 31 was decided on 26 May 1932 and has therefore just passed its 90th anniversary. The tale of the immortal "Paisley Snail" is likely familiar to all law students and lawyers across the world, being the foundational case in the law of delict in common law jurisdictions worldwide. The judgment set out the basis of the common law of negligence and the general principle of underlying duty of care, and obliged businesses and manufacturers to observe a duty of care towards their customers.
The Snail in the Ginger Beer Bottle
According to her written pleadings (the case never reached the stage of hearing evidence), in August 1928, May Donoghue visited the Wellmeadow Café in Paisley with a friend, who ordered and paid for her ginger beer. The café originally purchased the ginger beer from a distributor that had purchased it from the manufacturer, Stevenson. The ginger beer came in a dark, opaque bottle, and the contents were not visible from the outside. Mrs Donoghue said that she drank some of the contents and then her friend lifted the bottle to pour the remainder of the ginger beer into her glass. The remains of a snail in a state of decomposition dropped out of the bottle and into the glass. Mrs Donoghue became unwell and was treated for gastroenteritis and shock.
Around this time, there were a series of cases in Scotland concerning foreign bodies found in drinks bottles and Mrs Donoghue's solicitor, Mr Walter Leechman, had previously litigated such claims. These previous cases concerned dead mice floating in the bottom of ginger beer bottles.
Mrs Donoghue first raised an action against Stevenson (the manufacturer) in Edinburgh. In both the Outer House of the Court of Session, and then the Inner House on appeal, Mrs Donoghue was unsuccessful, with her claim being dismissed on the basis that Stevenson did not owe her a duty of care. Not to be dis-heartened, Mrs Donoghue filed a petition to appeal to the House of Lords in February 1931.
The appeal was granted and heard before five Law Lords in December 1931. It took five months for a judgment to be released, which was an unusually long delay. The Court held by a majority of 3-2 that Mrs Donoghue's case disclosed a cause of action, and therefore overturned the previous decisions of the Outer and Inner House of the Court of Session.
The Neighbour Principle
Within the judgment, came Lord Atkin's famous neighbour principle:
"You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who, then, in law, is my neighbour? The answer seems to be – persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question."
In making this statement, Lord Atkin set out the foundation for the common law of negligence within the UK and worldwide. Although over the 90 years since the judgment there have been refinements to the tests for negligence, this neighbour principle is still very apparent in modern product liability standards. In coming to his decision, Lord Atkin reviewed and compared relevant laws throughout the UK in order to get a broader approach and emphasised the gains of looking at case law of other countries.
Mrs Donoghue never had to prove the factual elements of her claim – including that there had actually been a snail in the ginger beer bottle – and the claim was settled out of court for £200 of the £500 originally claimed. In today's money, that would be around £15,000.
Significance 90 years on
The judgment and reasoning of Lord Atkin can be seen within subsequent negligence cases from 1932 to the present day. Although in some cases relevant legal tests have been refined and narrowed, the judgment still persists as foundational in the law of delict. A memorial commemorating the case marks the site of the former Wellmeadow Café in Paisley and there has also been a documentary produced on the case.
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