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Exploring Negligence in the Courts: A Close Look at Donoghue vs. Stevenson

When you start interning in courts under advocates you will find numerous civil and consumer court cases revolving around tort of negligence. It is rather fascinating that the law of tort is not codified in India and is primarily governed by judicial precedents and other common law jurisdictions. The case at hand Donoghue vs Stevenson is the founding stone for the tort of negligence. Almost all law students even before joining law school are well-versed with the concept of negligence. Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the case at hand, a brief introduction to what negligence is.

According to Black's Law Dictionary,
"[t]he omission to do something which a reasonable man, guided by those considerations which ordinarily regulate the conduct of human affairs, would do. Or doing something which a prudent and reasonable man would not do."

According to Professor Winfield,
"Negligence as a tort is the breach of duty to take care which results in damages."

The essentials of the law of negligence are as follows:
  1. Essential: The defendant had a duty of care toward the plaintiff
  2. Essential: That duty of care was breached by the defendant
  3. Essential: Plaintiff had to suffer damages for that breach of duty
Illustration: A purchased a hair dryer from X, the manufacturer. After just one use, it overheated and caught fire. X should be held responsible for negligence because they had a duty of care towards A, and they failed to ensure the product's safety, causing A harm.

Background/Facts of the case:
  1. On the 26th of August, 1928, Mr. Minchella purchased a ginger beer bottle from Well meadow Cafe in Paisley (Scotland) for his friend, Mrs. Donoghue. The ginger beer bottle was made of opaque glass, and there was no reason to suspect that the bottle might have contained anything other than ginger beer.
  2. After consuming almost half of the contents of the bottle, when the rest of the ginger beer was poured into a glass, decomposed remains of a snail floated into it. The nauseating sight and the consequences of ingesting the impurities in the bottle caused shock and severe gastroenteritis to the Appellant.
  3. Till that time, the duty of care arose contractually and there was no general duty of care. Meaning parties in a contract had a duty against each other but no general duty for those who are not part of the contract. The precedent set before this case was that only parties involved in contracts should be able to sue to enforce their rights or claim damages. The present case questioned this principle directly.

There were majorly three issues involved:
  1. Issue: Is there a duty of care in the absence of contractual relationships?
  2. Issue: Can the manufacturer be held liable for negligence?
  3. Issue: Does the manufacturer hold a general duty of care to consumers?
Appellant's Contentions:
  1. The Respondents sold the ginger bottle in an opaque glass container with a metal cap, targeting the general public for human consumption. Given that the product is specifically designed for use by the public it is offered to, the defense of no contractual liability is not valid. It is inaccurate to claim exemption from liability when placing a product in the market intended for sale to the general public.
  2. It was the duty of the Respondents to make sure that beer was being manufactured in a safe place where foreign material like snail in this case could not infect the product and make it hazardous for human consumption. A system of inspection should have been maintained to check the bottles before they were sealed.
  3. The beer was being sold in opaque glasses with metal caps on them. Respondents did not offer an opportunity for consumers to examine and ensure that the contents of the products aren't dangerous.
  4. The Appellant cited the case of "George vs. Skivington (1869)". In this case, it was held that a manufacturer who places a product in the market intended for human consumption, in a form that is hazardous for intake, can be sued for damages.

Respondent's Contentions:
Respondents contended that none of their bottles contained snails and that the alleged injuries were exaggerated. Illnesses alleged by the Appellant are due to other illnesses she might be suffering. Respondents claimed that the appeal had no legal basis and The facts alleged by the Appellant were exaggerated.

Brief overview of the Judgement:
  1. The appeal was heard by Lord Buckmaster, Lord Atkin, Lord Tomlin, Lord Thankerton, and Lord Macmillan. The House of Lords gave judgment after an unusually long delay of 5 months. The court held the case in favor of Appellants by a majority of 3:2.
  2. Lord Atkin, Lord Thankerton, and Lord Macmillan were part of the majority opinion while Lord Tomlin and Lord Buckmaster gave a dissenting judgment.
  3. Lord Atkin: He stated that Scottish and English law were identical in requiring a duty of care for negligence and elaborated on the concept of the "neighboring principle". The principle given by lord Atkin is as follows: "You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbor. Who, then, in law, is my neighbor? 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 affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question." This principle opened a pathway for the victims to whom a duty may be owed in a particular scenario, but they are not directly in contractual terms related to that scenario. Similar to the case at hand, the Appellant never directly bought the ginger beer; hence, there was no contractual relationship borne out of that purchase between the Appellant and the Respondent. However, there existed a duty of care for the consumer of the Respondent's product, which was grossly breached by the Respondent. Lord Atkin affirmed this in his judgment. He also suggested that manufacturers owed a duty of care for all articles of common household use, like medicines, soap, cleaning products, and so on.
  4. Lord Thankerton: He was of the opinion that the Appellant had no contract with the Respondent. However, he opined that where goods could not be examined, in the present case gingerbeer beer was in an opaque bottle with a metal cap on it, the manufacturer on his own had brought himself into a direct relationship because the consumer will have to depend on manufacturer's diligence and believe that the product will not be injurious to their health.
  5. Lord Macmillan: He opined that the Respondent had demonstrated a gross act of carelessness by leaving the bottle where snails could access them. He believed that the appellant had a course of action and that she had been wronged.
  6. Minority opinion consisting of Lord Buckmaster and Lord Tomlin followed a very narrow approach to interpretation of the law. This can be seen in one of the comments by Lord Buckmaster:
"The law applicable is the common law, and, though its principles are capable of application to meet new conditions not contemplated when the law was laid down, these principles cannot be changed nor can additions be made to them because any particular meritorious case seems outside their ambit."

Lord Buckmaster believed that George vs. Skivington should be dismissed commenting that cases like Heaven vs. Pender and George vs. Skivington should be buried so securely that their perturbed spirits shall no longer vex the law. He concluded that there was no common law support for the Appellant's case in hand. Lord Tomlin concurred with Lord Buckmaster. He showed concern for Lord Atkin's test of neighboring principle and commented that everyone injured in the infamous Versailles rail accident should be able to claim compensation from the manufacturer of the axle that broke causing a crash.


The case of Donoghue vs. Stevenson became a pivotal judgment in the development of the tort of negligence globally. It is a landmark case in the evolution of the jurisprudence of consumer protection laws. However, Lord Atkin's opinion is not seen as consumer-centric but rather from the perspective of a breach made by the manufacturer.

If the manufacturer can prove that a reasonable standard of care was in place, even if the products were injurious to the health of the poor consumers, the giant corporation will be easily able to defend itself.

I believe that the judgment delicately balanced the two ends, with buyers being aware before purchasing a product and the manufacturer having a duty of care for consumers. This judgment served as a positive start for the reformation of the law of negligence. As we move forward, the later case laws and precedents set by the judges have been more consumer-centric in nature.

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