Donoghue v Stevenson: The Snail That Left its Mark in the Common Law, Literally

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At the heart of Western society sits consumerism, which has become the driving force of economic growth, but what role does the law play in creating trust between firms and consumers, and where does our ‘protection’ stem from? The Donoghue v Stevenson decision is the root of our faithful submission to the incessant, yet enticing pull of firms which convinces us of the indispensability of their goods and services.

Today, we can feel confident in our purchases and be assured of compensation, should we come across a faulty good or service. Donoghue v Stevenson has given this power to us in the form of a major development in the law of negligence, a part of English Tort law. 

[1] The pivotal incident took place on the 26th of August, 1928, when Mrs Donoghue’s friend bought her a ginger beer (which happened to be in an opaque bottle) in a café in Paisley. She consumed around half of the bottle, but when her friend poured out its remaining contents, the decomposed remains of a snail floated out. Mrs Donoghue suffered an alleged shock, and a few days later was diagnosed with severe gastroenteritis. She was unable to claim that a breach of a warranty of a contract had occured, because she herself did not purchase the drink, and contract law states only the parties directly involved in the contract can sue to claim damages. Thus, Mrs Donoghue issued proceedings against Stevenson, the manufacturer. 

The case snaked its way up to the Supreme Court, namely the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords in England, after being reviewed in Scottish courts lower down. The main question for the Lords was whether Stevenson owed any duty of care to Mrs Donoghue. Primordial law of negligence was very narrow and only accounted for: 

  1. When the manufacturer was aware of a defect as a cause of danger and concealed this information from the consumer 
  2. When the product is intrinsically dangerous and the consumer has not been warned of it (e.g. a nuclear weapon)

The 3-2 majority at the House of Lords supported Mrs Donoghue’s claims, and the leading judgement established by Lord Atkin provided broader legal implications outside the narrow realm of simply the conclusion ‘not to sell opaque bottles of ginger-beer, containing the decomposed remains of a dead snail, to Scottish widows’.

[2] These implications include the notion that negligence is distinct in tort, an area of law ‘to redress a wrong done to a person and provide relief from the wrongful acts of others, usually by awarding monetary damages as compensation’. Furthermore, it was established that there was a lack of necessity of a contract for there to be a duty of care, and there is a duty manufacturers hold towards all their consumers regardless of whether there is direct contact between the two.

The case is best known however, for the development of the ‘neighbour principle’. Lord Atkin stated, ‘The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law, you must not injure your neighbour; and the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ receives a restricted reply.’ To answer who is thy neighbour; the question of the existence of the duty of care became reliant on the factors of foreseeability and proximity – that being whether the manufacturer could predict or avoid any harmful consequences, as well as to what extent consequences should be controlled. This religious and moral principle of loving thy neighbour has become a key part of the common law, and provides protection in personal injury cases, extends contractual law and elevates consumer rights. The concept of the duty of care is still used today – the remnants of a snail are what constructed the foundation of the modern law of negligence.

A key detail to note is that it has not been proven if it was a snail in the bottle. However, the importance of the principles and legal issues Lord Atkin brought to light, became developed to support the widespread fruition of trust between businesses and consumers. 

[3] Today, Mrs Donoghue ‘may also have a case under the Consumer Protection Act 1987, which introduced a “strict liability” regime where it is not necessary to prove fault on the part of the manufacturer. Any argument about how or why the snail found its way into the bottle would be irrelevant to the issue of liability’. The protective rights of consumers began with this landmark case of Donoghue v Stevenson, with the core biblical teaching of the Good Samaritan at its centre. The judgement clearly demonstrates the dynamic nature of the law, and its adaptability to the evolution of social and economic norms. 


References

  1. LawTeacher (2018) “Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] Doctrine of negligence” https://www.lawteacher.net/cases/donoghue-v-stevenson.php
  2. Investopedia (2018) “Tort Law” https://www.investopedia.com/terms/t/tort-law.asp
  3. The Guardian (2019) “Landmarks in law: the case of the dead snail in the ginger beer” https://www.theguardian.com/law/2019/oct/03/landmarks-in-law-the-case-of-the-dead-snail-in-the-ginger-beer

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2 Replies to “Donoghue v Stevenson: The Snail That Left its Mark in the Common Law, Literally”

  1. A fascinating outlook on a truly groundbreaking case.

  2. Thought provoking write up on a very sensitive subject. Well done Manya!!

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