Donoghue v. Stevenson [1932] AC 562

On this week in 1932, the House of Lords in London delivered what was to become a seminal judgement on what might have been considered an otherwise mundane set of facts.

On Sunday 26 August 1928, Mrs May Donoghue went into the Wellmeadow Café in Paisley, accompanied by a friend.  The friend ordered for her an ‘ice cream float’ from the proprietor, Mr Francis Minchella. Mrs Donoghue was supplied with an opaque bottle containing ginger beer which had been manufactured by the Defendant, Mr David Stevenson.  Mr Minchella poured some of the bottle’s contents over two slabs of ice cream in a tumbler, from which Mrs Donoghue then drank.  When her friend subsequently poured the remainder of the bottle into the tumbler, it transpired that it contained a decomposed snail.  Mrs Donoghue suffered shock and severe gastroenteritis.  

A complication for Mrs Donoghue was that she had no contractual relationship with Mr Michella, her friend having made the purchase.  This prompted a novel approach of issuing proceedings against the manufacturer directly.

Giving judgement, Lord Aiken developed what has come to be known as the neighbour principle:

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 which are called in question.

Strangely, no one seems to know how things worked out for Mrs Donoghue. What her adverse experience did however achieve was to establish what we have come to know as the tort of negligence.

By Paul Sullivan FRSA

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