Case study: Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932)

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This famous case established the civil law tort of negligence and obliged manufacturers to have a duty of care towards their customers. The events of the complaint took place in Scotland in 1928, when Ms May Donoghue was given a bottle of ginger beer, purchased by a friend. The bottle was later discovered to contain a decomposing snail. Since the bottle was not of clear glass, Donoghue was not aware of the snail until she had consumed most of its contents. She later fell ill and was diagnosed with gastroenteritis by a doctor. Donoghue subsequently took legal action against the manufacturer of the ginger beer, Stevenson. She lodged a writ in the Court of Sessions (Scotland’s highest civil court) seeking £500 damages.

Because her friend had purchased the drink, Donoghue could not sue on the basis that a contract had been breached; her lawyers instead had to claim that Stevenson had a duty of care to his consumers and that he had caused injury through negligence – an area of civil law that was largely untested at that time. Stevenson’s lawyers challenged the action on the basis that no precedents existed for such a claim. They referred to an earlier action, Mullen v. AG Barr, where a dead mouse was found in a bottle of soft drink; judges in this case dismissed it due to the lack of precedent. However Donoghue was later granted leave to appeal to the House of Lords, which then had the judicial authority to hear appellate cases. The leading judgement, delivered by Lord Atkin in 1932, established that Stevenson should be responsible for the well-being of individuals who consume his products, given that they could not be inspected. The case was returned to the original court; Stevenson died before the case was finalised and Donoghue was awarded a reduced amount of damages from his estate.

This case established several legal principles:

  • Firstly, that negligence is a distinct tort. A plaintiff can take civil action against a respondent, if the respondent’s negligence causes the plaintiff injury or loss of property. Previously the plaintiff had to demonstrate some contractual arrangement for negligence to be proven, such as the sale of an item or an agreement to provide a service. Since Donoghue had not purchased the drink, she could prove no contractual arrangement with Stevenson – yet Atkin’s judgement established that Stevenson was still responsible for the integrity of his product.
  • Secondly, manufacturers have a duty of care to consumers. According to Lord Atkin’s ratio decendi, “a manufacturer of products, which he sells … to reach the ultimate consumer in the form in which they left him … owes a duty to the consumer to take reasonable care”. This precedent has evolved and expanded to form the basis of laws that protect consumers from contaminated or faulty goods. These protections began as common law but many have since been codified in legislation, such as the Trade Practices Act (C’wealth, 1974).
  • Thirdly, Lord Atkin’s controversial ‘neighbour principle’. Here Atkin raised the question of which people may be directly affected by our actions, our conduct or things we manufacture. “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 to have them in [mind] when I am I am [considering these] acts or omissions.”

Civil disputes Civil disputes

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