Law Report - The snail in a bottle case

In Paisley, Scotland in 1928 a lady named Mrs Donoghue sat down to enjoy a bottle of ginger beer. She didn’t know it then but what would unfold that day went on to launch the legal concept of negligence as we know it today.

Mrs Donoghue had gone out with a friend. Her friend purchased her a bottle of ginger beer. The bottle was  made from brown glass. The beer contained a decomposing snail which she had not seen due to the colour of the bottle. She did not notice the snail until having consumed most of the bottles contents. Mrs Donoghue fell ill and was diagnosed with gastroenteritis.

The manufacturer of the ginger beer was a Mr Stevenson. Mrs Donoghue lodged a legal claim against Mr Stevenson seeking damages. She could not sue for breach of contract as her friend had purchased the ginger beer, not her. Instead her lawyers argued that Mr Stevenson had breached his duty of care to his consumers and had caused injury due to his negligence.

The arguments ventured into new territory as it was an area of civil law that had largely been untested.

At first instance Mrs Donoghues action failed however she took the case to the House of Lords. It was here that the Court found that Mr Stevenson should be responsible for the well-being of individuals who consume his products.

The outcome of Donoghue v Stevenson established three primary legal principles:

Negligence. The House of Lords found that negligence is a tort. A plaintiff can take civil action against a respondent if their negligence caused the plaintiff’s injury or loss of property. Prior to this case, the plaintiff had to demonstrate that a contractual agreement, such as the sale of an item or an agreement to obtain a service.

Duty of care. The case established that manufacturers have a duty of care to their consumers and the users of their products. The case forms the basis upon which modern laws protect consumers from contaminated or faulty goods. These protections exist both at common law but many have been legislated, such as in the Trade Practices Act (Cth) 1974.

Neighbour principle. The case also gave rise to the ‘neighbour principle. Lord Atkin opined: “You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonable foresee would be likely to injury your neighbor. 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”.

We are unsure whatever happened to the snail in the end but the House of Lords referred the matter back to the original Court and Mrs Donoghue received a modest award of damages.