This article is written by Ansruta Debnath, a student from National Law University Odisha and Ria Verma, a student at Symbiosis Law School, NOIDA. This article is a detailed case analysis of the landmark judgment of Donoghue v. Stevenson.
This article has been published by Sneha Mahawar.
Every law student has almost mandatorily heard about the famous case of Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932) or the ‘‘the snail in the bottle’’ case. It was not only a landmark judgment in the evolution of common law but also extremely pertinent to the development of tort law, a branch of law that, till today, houses numerous ambiguities. The revolutionary significance of the decision in the case is in the establishment of a standardized duty of care in negligence cases and the ‘‘neighbour principle’’ as set forth by Lord Atkin.
A brief overview of the tort of negligence
I often hear from our seniors and well-wishers to not be negligent in studies, work, or daily tasks. In the legal sense, negligence has a deeper meaning and constitutes an actionable tort. Some questions could arise like whether due to an individual’s negligent behavior that causes them to commit an act or omission, the individual could inflict risk or hamper the well-being of an individual or a group of individuals.
Negligence is one of the most prominent principles in the law of torts. It refers to an individual’s conduct that could be classified as either unreasonable or careless conduct or breach of a legal duty to take due care, which subsequently causes harm to an individual.
In several cases, the courts have given recognition to a duty of care existing due to some relationship between the parties. For example, a doctor and patient, employer and employee, manufacturer and consumer, one road-user to another, etc.
There are three pertinent essentials of this particular tort:
- The defendant had a duty of care towards the plaintiff
- There was a subsequent breach of that duty
- The plaintiff suffered damages as a consequence of the breach
According to Professor Winfield- “Negligence as a tort is the breach of duty to take care which results in damages.”
Let us look at the first case, Donoghue v Stevenson (1932), that introduced the doctrine of negligence that has been widely discussed and been a topic of discourse by eminent jurists, scholars, and law students all across the world. The landmark judgment has been credited as laying the foundation for the liability of the manufacturer in common law to the end-consumer.
Products could be classified into two categories: dangerous and not dangerous. However, there is a fine line of distinction that varies from case to case. Scrutton LJ confessed that he did not understand the difference: “Between anything dangerous in itself, like poison, and a thing not dangerous as a class, but by negligent construction dangerous as a particular thing. The latter, if anything, seems to be the more dangerous of the two; it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing instead of an obvious wolf.”
Facts of the case
On the 26th of August, 1928, Mr Minchella purchased a ginger beer bottle from Wellmeadow Cafe in Paisley (Scotland) for his friend, Mrs Donoghue, the appellant. The ginger beer bottle was made of dark opaque glass, and thus, there was no reason to suspect that the bottle might have contained anything other than ginger beer.
After consuming almost half of the contents of the bottle, when the rest of the ginger beer was poured into a tumbler, dead, decomposed remains of a snail floated into it. The nauseating sight coupled with the consequences of ingesting the impurities in the bottle caused shock and severe gastro-enteritis to the appellant.
The case was first filed in the Second Division of Sessions Court of Scotland where an interlocutor was issued by Lord Ordinary for proof after a good cause of action of the petitioner was found. But subsequently, another interlocutor by the majority was issued recalling the previous interlocutor and the action was dismissed. An appeal was then filed in the House of Lords.
The general principle established till then was that the manufacturers owed no duty of care to anyone with whom they are not in contractual relation. However, this general rule had two exceptions-
- The article is dangerous per se.
- The dangerousness of the article was known to the manufacturer but said knowledge was deliberately concealed.
In the present scenario, since the appellant was unable to claim compensation due to the breach of contract (no contract existed between the appellant and the manufacturer as the appellant’s friend had originally purchased the bottle), she submitted that Stevenson, the respondent, had breached the duty of care and caused legal injury through negligence.
Most cases, with a comparable fact scenario, had till then rejected the claims of compensation, asserting no duty of care arose without the presence of a contract. The only exception was George v. Skinvington (1869), where it was held that ordinary care was owed to persons using the product even in lack of a contractual relationship.
An important point to be noted is that even though the case was based in Scotland, English laws were used to deliver the judgment regarding the issue at hand, existing Scottish and English law concurred.
Prominent issues raised
The following issues were raised in this case:
- Was the manufacturer of the ginger beer aware of the defect in the product that made it unfit to consume and was it fraudulently concealed from the consumer?
- Could the product be classified as dangerous per se and was there a failure on part of the manufacturer to warn the consumer of the same?
- Would an action of negligence be applicable in light of the fact that there was no contract formed between the plaintiff and the manufacturer?
The ginger beer bottle was manufactured and sold to the public for consumption by the respondent- the bottle bore labels of the respondent’s company, and it was by the respondent who used metal caps to seal them.
The respondent, as manufacturers should have ensured that-
- A system was in place to ensure snails would not get into their packaged products.
- An efficient system of inspection was there to conduct checks before the bottles were sealed.
According to the appellants, the respondents failed in both these duties and caused this accident. Since the respondent invited the public (including the appellant) to consume a product they manufactured, bottled, labelled, and sealed and offered no opportunity to the consumer to examine their contents, they owed a duty of care to the appellant to ensure nothing in the bottle would injure such a consumer.
Moreover, the appellants contended that the principle of res ipsa loquitur was applicable in the present scenario. The fact that there was a snail in the bottle ‘spoke for itself’ the negligence of the manufacturers.
Finally, the appellants said that the exceptions to the general principle mentioned above were too strict and limited.
The appellants primarily cited the following to support their claim-
- George v. Skivington (1869)– This was an exceptional case that had held that ordinary care was owed to persons using the product even in lack of a contractual relationship,
- Sir Brett M.R.’s observation in Heaven v. Pender (1883) where he observed that ‘‘Whenever a reasonable person would foresee that harm would be caused if he did not use reasonable care and skill he owes a duty in tort’’ and,
- Lord Denuedin’s observations in Dominion Natural Gas v. Collins and Perkins (1909) stated that those who sent out to everyone inherently dangerous articles were subject to a common law duty to take precautions.
The respondents claimed that the allegations of injury to the appellant were exaggerated and not as a cause of the alleged snail but due to existing health problems. Hence, the allegations were irrelevant and insufficient to constitute a proper ground for a summons.
Moreover, they sought to prove that the appellants had no legal basis for the given claim by primarily citing the following cases-
- Mullen v. AG Barr & Co Ltd. (1929): The scenario, in this case, was almost similar to the case in question, except dead mice were discovered instead of a snail. The Scottish Sessions Court dismissed the case due to the absence of a contractual relationship and used that precedent to dismiss the present case as well.
- Winterbottom v. Wright (1842): In this case, the issue of contention was whether the manufacturer owed any duty of care to a third party and the judgment was given in negative.
- Blacker v. Lake & Elliot, Ld (1912): Hamilton J. observed here that breach of duty in the contract does not give any cause of action to third parties.
The respondents further contended that although most of the relevant precedents dealt with non-food items, there was no logical reason why they would not apply to food items as well.
The outcome of the judgment, was by 3:2 majority, decided for the appellant, Mrs. Donoghue. Lord Atkin, leading the judgment, declared that in the present case there was clear duty of care to Mrs. Donoghue.
It was held that-
- The manufacturer owed a duty of care to all end-consumers of their product
- The said liability could arise if and only if there was no way of intermediate inspection of the product, and thus injury was a proximate cause of breach of duty.
- The manufacturer did not owe any contractual duty towards the appellant (in line with established doctrine of privity of contract) but at the same time owing to the appellant a general duty of care to ensure the integrity of the said product.
Lord Thankerton and Lord Macmillan concurred.
Lord Buckmaster and Lord Tomlin presented a dissenting opinion on the grounds that the appellant’s case went against the already established principles. Lord Buckmaster pointed out the importance of retaining the distinction of dangerous and non-dangerous products and implored the application of the exception to only those objects which were inherently dangerous.
Moreover, both these judges denied the legitimate authority of George v. Skivington (1869) and expressed concern over the cascade of cases that might ensue if the ambit of liability of the manufacturers was widened. Lord Buckmaster said that it would be socially and economically irresponsible to affix such a wide liability on the manufacturing sector. Lord Tomlin was of the view that such a feat was logically impossible.
Establishment of legal principles
This case garnered widespread importance due to the three basic legal principles it established-
The tort of negligence as a distinct tort was properly established by this case. Previously, there was a need to prove the presence of the contract and its breach to constitute a negligent act. However, after this case, one had to prove breach of duty or omission to do something according to standards of a reasonable man (no need for a contract) and consequent legal injury to satisfactorily sue for negligence.
Duty of Care
Lord Atkin observed ‘‘…a manufacturer of products, which he sells…to reach the ultimate consumer in the form which left him…owes a duty of care to the consumer”. In other words, the manufacturer owes a duty of care to all their possible consumers. This precedent was thus able to initiate numerous avenues in consumer protection and consumer rights.
The ‘‘neighbour’’ principle
Lord Atkin developed this principle to determine the individuals to which duty of care was owed. He called such individuals ‘‘neighbours’’. These neighbours could be determined by the doctrine of reasonable foreseeability- only those individuals who could be reasonably foreseen to be affected by a person’s actions could claim damages in case of injury due to said person’s actions.
Atkin 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.’’
Thus, through the case law of Donoghue v. Stevenson, crucial principles required to establish liability- degree of duty of care and the neighbour principle got introduced in the still-nascent field of early 20th-century tort law.
One of the most glaring aspects that come to light on the reading of the original judgment of Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932) is the stark contrast between the judgments of Lord Atkins and Lord Buckmaster. Both of them reached opposite opinions from the same fact scenario, a situation which is a fine indicator of the rising complexities the legal system was facing.
On one hand, there were the already established principles of common law which as Lord Buckmaster stated ‘‘cannot be changed nor can additions be made to them because any particular meritorious case seems outside their ambit.’’ Accordingly, Lord Buckmaster gave his judgment which did not deviate from these principles.
On the other hand, there was Lord Atkin who reiterated the immense role that judges play in protecting the rights of citizens by ensuring the development of a principle that reoriented the concept of liability from negligence. As a result, he played a vital role in changing the perspective of how common law works, as well as, in the inevitable evolution of tort law.
One of the driving forces of the decision in favour of the appellant was the need for justice even when law per se was contradictory to it. This case thus highlighted the changing dynamics of the concepts of law and justice and was a good example of a situation where justice takes the front seat instead of law.
Donoghue v. Stevenson thus successfully sets a benchmark for the standard of duty of care. However, with increasing legal convulsions, the set standard started becoming too simple. A more elaborate three-step neighbour test was established in Caparo Industries Plc v. Dickman (1990). The test, however, had its basis in the original principle of Lord Atkin. Other cases have further developed this principle.
Hence, the significance of this case cannot be understated. This case is still quoted, one recent example being The Managing Director, Kerala Tourism Development Corporation Ltd. v. Deepti Singh and Ors. (2019) in the Supreme Court of India.
Yet, many scholars criticize the continuing fanfare regarding this case, observing that the principles established are too basic. However, it is precisely this reason that the author believes there is a need to exhaustively study the given case law. As cases become more complex, it can be safely concluded that there is a profound need to go back to the basics and study all those that are now taken for granted.
- Judgement: Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932)
- Case Analysis- Donoghue v. Stevenson
- Negligence Duty Of Care Cases | Tort Law Cases
- Donoghue v. Stevenson Analysis
- Case Analysis: Donoghue v. Stevenson
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