Donoghue vs Stevenson (1932)

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Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932): A case which defined the duty of care in tort law.

Areas of applicable law: Tort law – Duty of care – Neighbour principle:

Main arguments in this case: Who is responsible in a case of negligence?

The fact of the case: Mrs Donoghue and her friend went in a café where her friend bought a bottle of ginger beer for her. Ginger beer at that time used to come in opaque bottles. Upon arrival of the beer, Mrs Donoghue poured some into a glass and drank it; but when she poured the rest of the beer later, a partially rotten snail came out of the bottle with the remaining ginger beer. It somehow had found its way into the bottle. As a consequence, Mrs Donoghue fell sick and later filed a claim of negligence against the manufacturer.

At the time of filling the case, remedy for physical injury was only available under contract law if the injury was a direct physical injury (for example, visible on the body). As we can see this option was not available to Mrs Donoghue for two reasons; (a) she was sick and this was not regarded as direct physical injury,  and (b) the ginger beer was bought by her friend who was not only one of the parties in the contract made between him and the café, he also did not sustain any injury from the product either physical or otherwise..

When the case went to the House of Lords the court found in favour of Mrs Donoghue and in his decision Lord Atkin established what is known as the neighbour principle: “You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour.’

He further explained who can be regarded as a neighbour in such situations where a duty of care can exist; ‘persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question’.

This case is important in English tort law as this was the first case which established the modern definition of negligence in tort law by setting out how a person might owe a duty of care to another person if the latter is affected by an act or omission by the former. The case is also known as the snail in the bottle.

The case established that a manufacture has a duty of care to the person who is the end user of its product. In another word, a manufacturer has the ultimate responsibility to make sure that the products do not cause injury or harm to any person who ultimately uses the products.

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