Donoghue v. Stevenson

 Sorry for the long hiatus. Currently I have some tests. My schedule is very packed from now onwards. So, enjoy this entry.

This case is a must for every law student to understand. I have done a presentation on the law of tort of negligence. Praises are due to Allah, I did it very well. Therefore, I would like to share one case for all, even you are not a law student. This would add to your general knowledge.

Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] UKHL 100 is often referred to as the "Paisley snail" or the "snail in the bottle" case, and is one of the most famous decisions in British legal history. The case originated in Paisley, Scotland.


On the evening of Sunday 26 August 1928, May Donoghue and her friend took their seats in the Wellmeadow Café. Donoghue's friend ordered an ice-cream drink. The owner brought the order and poured part of an opaque bottle of ginger beer into a tumbler containing ice cream. Donoghue drank some of the contents and her friend lifted the bottle to pour the remainder of the ginger beer into the tumbler. It was claimed that the remains of a snail in a state of decomposition dropped out of the bottle into the tumbler. Donoghue later complained of stomach pain and her doctor diagnosed her as having gastroenteritis and being in a state of severe shock.

On 9 April 1929, Donoghue brought an action against David Stevenson, an aerated water manufacturer in Paisley, in which she claimed £500 as damages for injuries sustained by her through drinking ginger beer which had been manufactured by him. The writ lodged in the Court of Session alleged that May Donoghue had become ill with nervous shock and gastroenteritis after drinking part of the contents of an opaque bottle of ginger beer, and David Stevenson, the manufacturer, "owed her a duty to take reasonable care that ginger beer he manufactured, bottled, labelled and sealed, and invited her to buy, did not contain substances likely to cause her injury."

Counsel for the manufacturer denied that any such duty was owed but, in June 1930, the judge Lord Moncrieff ruled there was a case to answer. Stevenson appealed the ruling on a number of legal grounds, and the judges of the Inner House granted the appeal in November 1930, dismissing Donoghue's claim as having no legal basis following the authority of their earlier decision in Mullen v AG Barr. One of the judges said that "the only difference between Donoghue's case and the mouse cases was the difference between a rodent and a gastropod and in Scots law that meant no difference at all."

Donoghue's solicitor, Walter Leechman of W G Leechman & Co in Glasgow's West George Street, had already tried to establish liability against aerated water manufacturer A. G. Barr when a dead mouse was alleged to have found its way into a bottle of its ginger beer. However, an action for damages was rejected by the Inner House of the Court of Session, when the appeal court judges ruled that there was no legal authority allowing such an action.

Donoghue was allowed to appeal her case to the House of Lords but, whilst her legal team had agreed to provide their services free, she was unable to put up the security needed to ensure the other side's costs were met should she lose in the Lords. However, as such security would not be required if she could gain the status of a pauper, she petitioned the House of Lords, saying, "I am very poor and am not worth in all the world the sum of five pounds, my wearing apparel and the subject matter of the said appeal...". A certificate of poverty signed by a minister and two elders of her church was attached to the petition, and the House of Lords agreed to grant her pauper status.

Donoghue's counsel - George Morton KC and W. R. Milligan - argued that a manufacturer who puts a product intended for human consumption onto the market in a form that precludes examination before its use is liable for any damage caused if he fails to exercise reasonable care to ensure it is fit for human consumption. Stevenson's counsel - W. G. Normand KC and T. Elder Jones - argued that there was no authority for such a principle of law.


In common law, a person can claim damages from another person where that other person owed the first person a duty of care and harmed that person through their conduct in breach of that duty. This concept existed prior to Donoghue, but it was generally held that a duty of care was only owed in very specific circumstances, such as where a contract existed between two parties or where a manufacturer was making inherently dangerous products or was acting fraudulently.

There was no contractual relationship between Donoghue and the drinks manufacturer or even the café owner, as Donoghue had not ordered or paid for the drink herself. Although there was a contractual relationship between the café owner and Donoghue's friend, the friend had not been harmed by the ginger beer. As ginger beer was not a dangerous product, and the manufacturer had not fraudulently misrepresented it, the case also fell outside the scope of the established cases on product liability. On the face of it, the law therefore did not provide a remedy for Donoghue.


The leading judgment was delivered on 26 May 1932 by Lord Atkin. The most famous section was his explanation of the "neighbour" principle, which was derived from the Christian principle of "loving your neighbour".

"There must be, and is, some general conception of relations giving rise to a duty of care, of which the particular cases found in the books are but instances. ...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. 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 reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions that are called in question . . . a manufacturer of products, which he sells in such a form as to show that he intends them to reach the ultimate consumer in the form in which they left him with no reasonable possibility of intermediate examination, and with knowledge that the absence of reasonable care in the preparation or putting up of products will result in an injury to the consumer's life or property, owes a duty to the consumer to take that reasonable care."

The case was returned to Scotland for the Court of Session to apply the ruling to the facts of the case. In the event, David Stevenson died within a year of the decision and his executors settled out of court, for less than the original claim of £500.

* This decision is still relevant today as if you have bought any product from a retailer that is faulty and it causes you injury this case will allow you to bring a claim for compensation.

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