Learn how a simple snail and a bottle of ginger beer were responsible for the birth of the modern law of negligence.
On Sunday 26th August 1928 May Donoghue sat in a café with a friend. The friend ordered and paid for some ginger beer, which came in a bottle made from dark opaque glass. Donoghue drank some of the contents then her friend proceeded to pour the remainder of the contents of the bottle into the tumbler when a snail, which was beginning to rot, floated out of the bottle.
As a result of the sickening sight of the snail, and the impurities in the ginger-beer, Donoghue suffered from shock and severe gastro-enteritis. She argued that the ginger-beer was manufactured by the defendant (Stevenson) to be sold as a drink to the public; that it was bottled with a label bearing his name; and that the bottles were then sealed with a metal cap by the defendant.
Donoghue’s lawyer, Walter Leechman, claimed that it was the duty of the defendant to provide a system of working his business which would not allow snails to get into ginger-beer bottles, and that it was also his duty to provide a system of inspection of the bottles before the ginger-beer was filled into them, and that he had failed in both these duties and had so caused the accident.
The ‘neighbour principle’
The case went all the way to the House of Lords where the Law Lords ruled for Donoghue. It was the speech of Lord Atkins that was most influential. He said :
``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.''
This `neighbour principle' was, and to a certain extent still is, the foundation of the modern law of negligence.
"In the law of negligence, the neighbour principle enunciated by Lord Atkin in Donoghue v Stevenson (1932) AC 562, 580 provides an adequate basis on which to resolve duty of care questions" Discuss.
The so-called “neighbour principle” laid down in the seminal case Donoghue v Stephenson (1932) provided the foundation and conceptual cornerstone for the development of the law of negligence in the twentieth century. The seemingly trivial facts of the case, which concerned two friends who visited a café only for one of them to discover a decomposed snail in a bottle of ginger beer purchased by the other, belie the importance of the decision ultimately handed down by the House of Lords. In the following discussion the principle articulated by Lord Atkin to determine the boundaries of the duty of care in negligence is considered in the context of other relevant case law.
In Donoghue v Stephenson the House of Lords deemed it necessary to overcome the problems generated by privity of contract in order to provide an alternative route of claim for an injured party. It was Mrs Donoghue's friend that purchased the ginger beer that ultimately caused her injury and therefore only her friend that had a right to sue under the contract. The House of Lords solved this problem by imposing liability in negligence on the owner of the café, specifying that such would be possible where a duty of care could be found to lie between the owner (the tortfeasors) and the victim (Mrs Donoghue). Lord Atkin outlined the parameters of the duty of care in this field in the following often-quoted terms:
"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…