This case analysis is written by Gaurav Lall pursuing BBA LL.B. (Hons.) at United World School of Law.
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.
House of Lords.
Lords Buckmaster, Atkin, Tomlin, Thankerton, and Macmillan.
Donoghue v Stevenson  AC 562.
Brief Facts and Procedural History
On August 26 1928, Mrs Donoghue’s friend bought her a ginger-beer at a café in Glasgow. Donoghue’s companion ordered the bottle and paid for her drink. She consumed about half of the bottle, which was made of dark opaque glass and not visible from outside. When the remaining drink of the contents was poured into a tumbler at that point, the decomposed remains of a snail floated out causing her alleged shock and severe gastroenteritis. Mrs Donoghue was not able to claim through breach of warranty of a contract she was not involved in any contract. Therefore, she issued proceedings against Stevenson, the manufacturer, which tends its way up to the House of Lords.
Issues of the Case
Does the defendant owe a duty of care to the plaintiff being as there is no contractual term?
Decision of the Case
Donoghue thereafter took legal action against Mr David Stevenson, the manufacturer of the ginger beer bottle. She lodged a writ in the Sessions Court, Scotland’s highest civil court, seeking £500 for damages.
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 judgement, delivered by Lord Atkin in 1932, established that Stevenson was accountable 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 less amount of damages from his estate. Finally, her claim was successful.
The outcomes of the judgement 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 loss or harm to the property. Earlier, the plaintiff had to demonstrate some contractual provision 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 accountable for the integrity of his product.
Duty of care: Secondly, the case established that manufacturers have a duty of care for their consumers or users towards their products. According to Lord Atkin’s ratio decendi, “a manufacturer of products, which he sells to reach the eventual consumer in the form in which they left him to owe a duty to the consumer to take appropriate care”. This precedent has evolved and now forms the basis of laws that protect consumers from adulterated or faulty goods. This preservation 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 give rise to Lord Atkin’s contentious “neighbour principle”, which extended the tort of negligence beyond the tortfeasor and the immediate person. It uplifted the question of exactly which people might be affected by negligent actions. In this case, she had not purchased the ginger beer bottle but had received it as a gift; she was a “neighbour” rather than a party to the contract. Atkin said of this principle: “You should take appropriate care to avoid acts or omissions which you can moderately predict would be likely to injure your neighbour.
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