Case study: Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932)

donoghue v. stevenson
Donoghue v. Stevenson is often referred to as the ‘snail in the bottle’ case

Donoghue v. Stevenson, also known as the ‘snail in the bottle case’, is a significant case in Western law. The ruling in this case established the civil law tort of negligence and obliged businesses to observe a duty of care towards their customers.

The events of the case took place in Paisley, Scotland in 1928. While attending a store, Ms May Donoghue was given a bottle of ginger beer, purchased for her by a friend. The bottle was later discovered to contain a decomposing snail. Since the bottle was not made of clear glass, Donoghue consumed most of its contents before she became aware of the snail. She later fell ill and a physician diagnosed her with gastroenteritis.

Donoghue subsequently took legal action against Mr David Stevenson, the manufacturer of the ginger beer. She lodged a writ in the Court of Sessions, Scotland’s highest civil court, seeking £500 damages.

Donoghue could not sue Stevenson for breach of contract because she had not purchased the drink herself. Instead, Donoghue’s lawyers claimed that Stevenson had breached a duty of care to his consumers and caused injury through negligence. At the time, this area of civil law was largely untested. Stevenson’s lawyers challenged Donoghue’s action on the basis that no precedents existed for such a claim. They referred to an earlier action by Donoghue’s lawyer, Mullen v. AG Barr, where a dead mouse was found in a bottle of soft drink; judges dismissed this action due to a lack of precedent.

Donoghue’s initial action failed but she was granted leave to appeal to the House of Lords (which, at the time, had the judicial authority to hear appellate cases). The leading judgement, delivered by Lord Atkin in 1932, established that Stevenson was responsible for the well-being of individuals who consumed 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.

The outcomes of Donoghue v. Stevenson established several legal principles and precedents:

Negligence. Firstly, the House of Lords ruling affirmed that negligence is a 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 Lord Atkin’s judgement established that Stevenson was still responsible for the integrity of his product.

Duty of care. Secondly, the case established that manufacturers have a duty of care to the end consumers or users of their products. 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 now forms 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 (Commonwealth, 1974).

Neighbour principle. Thirdly, the Donoghue v. Stevenson case produced Lord Atkin’s controversial “neighbour principle”, which extended the tort of negligence beyond the tortfeasor and the immediate party. It raised the question of exactly which people might be affected by negligent actions. In Donoghue’s case, she had not purchased the ginger beer but had received it as a gift; she was a “neighbour” rather than a party to the contract. Atkin said of this 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 to have them in [mind] when I am [considering these] acts or omissions.”

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