Donoghue v Stevenson
By T. Tanya
Donoghue v Stevenson
· Jurisdiction: House of Lords
· Date of decision: 26 May 1932
Donoghue v Stevenson was a foundational decision in Scots delict law and English tort law by the House of Lords. It shaped the modern concept of negligence, by setting out general principles regarding “duty of care”. This case is also known as the "Paisley snail “or "snail in the bottle" case. The facts involved Mrs. Donoghue drinking a bottle of ginger beer in a cafe in Paisley, Renfrewshire. A dead snail was in the bottle. She fell ill, and she sued the ginger beer manufacturer, Mr. Stevenson. The House of Lords held that the manufacturer had a duty of care to her, which was breached, because it was reasonably foreseeable that failure to ensure the product's safety would lead to harm of consumers. The ruling in this case established the civil law tort of negligence and concerned businesses to observe a duty of care towards their customers.
FACTS OF THE CASE:
On the evening of Sunday 26 August 1928, during the Glasgow Trades Holiday, Donoghue took a train to Paisley, Renfrewshire. In Paisley, she went to the Wellmeadow Cafe. A friend, who was with her ordered a pear and ice for herself and a Scotsman ice cream float a mix of ice cream and ginger beer, for Donoghue. The owner of the cafe, Francis Minghella, brought over a glass of ice cream and poured ginger beer on it from a brown and opaque bottle labeled "D. Stevenson, Glen Lane, Paisley". Donoghue drank some of the ice cream float. However, when Donoghue's friend poured the remaining ginger beer into the tumbler, a decomposed snail also floated out of the bottle. Donoghue claimed that she felt ill just from seeing the decomposed snail and complained of abdominal pain. She was subsequently diagnosed with severe gastroenteritis and shock. The ginger beer had been manufactured by David Stevenson, who ran a company producing both ginger beer and lemonade at 11 and 12 Glen Lane, Paisley, less than a mile away from the Wellmeadow Cafe. The contact detail for the ginger beer manufacturer was on the bottle label and was recorded by Donoghue's friend.
Donoghue subsequently contacted and instructed Walter Leechman, a local solicitor and city councilor whose firm had acted for the claimants in a factually similar case, Mullen v AG Barr & Co Ltd[i]. Less than three weeks earlier. Leechman issued a writ on Donoghue's behalf against Stevenson on 9 April 1929.
LEGAL BACKGROUND OF THE CASE:
Normally, injuries resulting from defective products were claimed based on the contract of sale between the seller and the consumer. However, Donoghue had no contractual relationship with Minghella as she had not purchased the ginger beer; while her friend did have a contract as she is the one who placed the order, and she had not suffered any injury. Donoghue was therefore required to claim damages for negligence. In a popular case, Ansell Vs Waterhouse, it was held that legal liability could arise for an act or omission "contrary to the duty which the law casts on him in the particular case”. However the legal liability only arose where the duties omitted had a contractual background. Another case which did not favour Donogue’s claim was Mullen v AG Barr & Co Ltd, a recent Court of Session case. In Mullen, two children, John and Francis Mullen, and Jeanie Oribine had separately found dead mice in their bottles of ginger beer, manufactured by AG Barr & Co Ltd, and claimed to have become ill through drinking the tainted liquid. In separate hearings in Glasgow and Greenock Sheriff Court respectively, Orbine was successful in claiming compensation while the Mullens were not. The losing parties of both cases appealed to the Court of Session. At the Court of Session, the claimants argued that although there was no direct evidence that the manufacturer had been negligent in preparing the ginger beer, negligence could be presumed (res ipsa loquitur) from the mere presence of dead mice in ginger beer bottles. But, the court ruled against the claimants. The majority held that on a factual basis AG Barr & Co Ltd had rebutted a presumption of negligence and that on a legal basis product manufacturers only owed a duty of care to the ultimate consumers if there was a contractual relationship between the parties; if the dangerousness of the product was intentionally withheld from the consumer (in which case there might also be a claim for fraud); or if there was no warning of the intrinsic dangerousness of certain products, such as explosives. Only Lord Hunter dissented, finding that negligence to be inferred and that the fact that the bottle contents could not be examined (because of the dark glass) gave rise to a specific duty of care that would allow consumers to claim for damages. However, neither of the circumstances in which negligence could be found in product liability cases applied to Donoghue: ginger beer is not intrinsically dangerous, nor did Stevenson intentionally misrepresent the threat it posed. Nevertheless, Donoghue’s counsel argued that manufacturers also owed a duty of care to their ultimate consumers if it was not possible to examine the goods before they were used, an exception that would apply to Donoghue. The first interlocutory action was heard on the Court of Session on 21 May 1929 in front of Lord Moncrieff. After an adjournment, Minghella was added as a defender on 5 June. The claim against him was abandoned on 19 November, likely due to his lack of contractual relationship with Donoghue and his inability to examine the contents of the dark glass bottle. On 12 December, Minghella and Stevenson were awarded a combined costs claim of £108 6s 3d against Donoghue for this abandoned strand of litigation. However, it was recorded on 20 December that Donoghue did not pay the costs awarded to Minghella.
ISSUES RAISED BEFORE THE COURT:
The three main issues or principles that have to be considered are:
1. Duty of care,
2. Privity of the contract rule and
3. Limited categories of negligence.
The question for the House of Lords was whether the manufacturer owed Mrs. Donoghue a duty of care in the absence of contractual relations contrary to established case law.[ii] Donoghue was effectively a test case to determine if she had a cause of action, not if she was owed compensation for any damages suffered.
The law of negligence at the time was very narrow and was invoked only if there was some established contractual relationship. An earlier case[iii], involving two children and floating mice, held that:
In Absence of a contract, a manufacturer owed no duty of care to a consumer when putting a product on the market except:
The case was first moved through Court of Session and an appeal was filed to the House of Lords.
Donoghue filed a petition to appeal to the House of Lords on 25 February 1931.
The House of Lords gave judgment on 26 May 1932. The court held by a majority of 3:2 that Donoghue's case disclosed a cause of action. The majority consisted of Lord Atkin, Lord Thankerton and Lord Macmillan. The primary outcome of Donoghue, and what it is best known for, is the further development of the neighbour principle by Lord Atkin, who said:
“The rule that you are to love your neighbor 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 which are called in question”.
It was held by the Court that the manufacturers owe the final consumer of their product a duty of care. There need not be a contractual relationship or privity in order for the final consumer to sue for negligence.
PRINCIPLES EVOLVED FROM THE CASE:
There were three main areas which were dealt widely in the said case. This case has expanded the aspect of negligence, duty of care and neighnour principle.
1. Negligence. The House of Lords ruling confirmed 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. Earlier only by virtue of contract, the plaintiff had the ground to claim. Since Donoghue had not purchased the drink, she could prove no contractual arrangement with Stevenson – yet Lord Atkin’s judgment established that Stevenson was still responsible for the integrity of his product.
2. Duty of care. The case established that manufacturers owe a duty of care to the end consumers or users of their products. According to Lord Atkin’s ratio decendi, “a manufacturer of products, which he sells… to reach the ultimate consumer in the form in which they left him… owes a duty to the consumer to take reasonable care”. This precedent has evolved and now forms the basis of laws that protect consumers from contaminated or faulty goods. These protections began as common law but many have since been codified in legislation, such as the Trade Practices Act.
3. Neighbour principle. 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.”
Though Donoghue was not the first case to deal with the concept of negligence on contract it certainly did expand the topic negligence and manufacturer’s duty of care.
Before this case the plaintiff could take action or claim damages only if there was breach of contract. But this case showed that though the plaintiff had no contract the concerned party would be held liable. There is at least minimum degree of care which has to be ensured by the manufacturer and the seller. The defence of “no contractual relationship” cannot be used against the consumer. The said case also expanded the concept of neighbor principle.
This decision created a new category of duty of care that had to be ensured by the manufacturer of goods to the ultimate user of the goods. However, it is also credited with establishing the modern form of the tort of negligence by setting out the general principles for determining whether a person owes a duty of care to another. Prior to this decision, it was only recognized that a duty of care was owed in very specific circumstances, such as where a binding contract existed between the parties or the particular article was dangerous. The general conception of duty of care stated by Lord Atkin has since been used to identify numerous categories of situation when a duty of care will arise.
[ii] Winterbottom v Wright152 E.R. 402, (1842) 10 M. & W. 10
[iii] Mullen v AG Barr & Co Ltd 1929 S.C. 461, 1929 S.L.T. 341
[iv] Levy v Langridge 150 E.R. 1458, (1838) 4 M. & W. 337; Frederick Longmeid and Eliza his Wife v Holliday 155 E.R. 752, (1851) 6 Ex. 761
[v]Heaven v Pender (t/a West India Graving Dock Co) (1882-83) L.R. 11 Q.B.D. 503, CA