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CASE STUDY of DONOGHUE V. STEVENSON (1932)

 CASE STUDY: DONOGHUE V. STEVENSON (1932)

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. 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 finalized

and Donoghue was awarded a reduced amount of damages from his estate.


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

precedents:

(1) 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.

(2) Duty of care. Secondly, the case established that manufacturers have a duty of care to

the end consumers or users of their products.

(3) 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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