Citation -  A.C. 562,  UKHL 100, 1932 S.C. (H.L.) 31, 1932 S.L.T. 317,  W.N. 139
Donoghue v. Stevenson, a Scottish dispute, is a famous case in English law that was instrumental in shaping the law of tort and introduced the doctrine of negligence. It is a landmark case in tort law. The wider importance of the case is that it established the general principle of the duty of care concept in law. The test was formulated by Lord Atkin and it is generally referred to as the “neighbour test” or “neighbour principle”.
Donoghue v. Stevenson, also known as the "Paisley snail case," is a landmark legal case that was heard in the House of Lords in 1932 and is considered a key case in the development of the law of negligence in the United Kingdom.
On August 26, 1928, Mrs. Donoghue’s (Plaintiff) friend bought her a ginger beer. She consumed about half of the bottle, which was made of dark opaque glass when the remainder of the contents was poured into a tumbler. At this 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 as she was not a party to any contract. Therefore, she issued proceedings against Stevenson, the manufacturer (Defendant) which snaked its way up to the House of Lords.
Does a manufacturer of ginger beer bottles owe a duty of care to the end consumer while he didn’t directly sell it to him, but only via a distributor?
Donoghue argued that Stevenson owed a duty of care to his customers who were to consume his ginger beer, to have an effective system to clean his bottle and keep it away from snails. Stevenson denied having snails in any of his bottles, arguing that Donoghue’s health problems had been caused by her own bad health conditions. He stated that the facts were not proved, he did not cause Donoghue any harm, and that the damages claimed were excessive.
The matter was first heard in the Outer House of the Court of Sessions before Lord Moncrieff. Here, the owner of the café was added as a defendant but later dropped him because of his lack of contractual relationship with Donoghue, as the ginger beer was purchased by her friend and the fact that the owner of the cafe could not have possibly examined the content of the bottle.
Lord Moncrieff, dismissed the argument and case law that required that there must be a contractual relationship between the parties before liability can be incurred for negligence in preparing goods for consumption. He described the principle as narrow.
Stevenson appealed to the Inner House of the Court of Sessions which was presided over by four judges who had heard the case of Mullen v AG Barr & Co Ltd where it was held that no duty of care could arise in the absence of a contractual relationship. Thus, the appeal was allowed by the majority of the judges while Lord Hunter dissented again.
Donoghue appealed to the House of Lords. The judges who heard her appeal were Lord Atkin, Lord Thankerton, Lord Tomlin, Lord Buckmaster, and Lord MacMillan. Donoghue’s Counsel argued that Stevenson owed a duty of care that was independent of contract because the bottles in which the ginger beers come in could not be examined and also because it was meant for human consumption.
Stevenson’s Counsel argued that it was an established law in England and Scotland that no duty was owed by manufacturers to anybody with whom they had no direct contract. They argued that the exceptions which were created in English and Scottish laws were not present in this case; that is, that the ginger beer was not intrinsically dangerous and that the defendant, Stevenson, was not aware that the product was dangerous.
The House of Lords held in favour of Donoghue, albeit, not unanimously.
According to Lord Atkin, the case was an important one because of the bearing the decision on it would have on public health. To him, the moral rule that requires one to love their neighbour, or in-law, manifests as the rule that one has to take care not to injure his neighbour. He says that care must be taken, and such care must be reasonable, in order not to put one’s neighbour in danger or cause one’s neighbour an injury that is foreseeable. He defined a neighbour as one who will be directly affected by one’s action or omission so much so that one has to put such a person in his contemplation while he does such action or makes such omission.
The case of Donoghue v. Stevenson has had a significant impact on the law of negligence in the UK and other common law jurisdictions. The case established the duty of care that manufacturers owe to consumers and set a standard for the level of care that a manufacturer must take to ensure the safety of his products. The case also confirmed the principle that a manufacturer could be held liable for harm caused by a defect in his product, even if the defect was not known to him at the time of manufacture.
In conclusion, Donoghue v. Stevenson is a landmark case in the development of the law of negligence in the UK, and its impact has been felt in the UK and other common law jurisdictions. The case has established the principle that a manufacturer must take reasonable care to ensure that his products are safe for consumers to use, and has set a standard for the level of care that a manufacturer must take to fulfill that duty.