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Donoghue v. Stevenson: Case Analysis

The Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932) known as the snail in the bottle case is cited as 1932 SC (HL) was a landmark judgment for transformation and development of common law and tort law.

Factual structure of the case
Mr. Minchella bought a bottle of ginger beer for his acquaintance, Mrs. Donoghue, the appellant, on August 26, 1928, at Wellmeadow Cafe in Paisley, Scotland. Since the bottle of ginger beer was made of black, opaque glass, there was no reason to believe that it contained anything other than ginger beer. Upon finishing nearly half of the bottle, the dead and decomposing remain of a snail drifted into a glass containing the remaining ginger beer. The sickening sight and the effects of swallowing the contaminants in the bottle left the appellant with severe gastro-enteritis and shock.

The lawsuit was initially brought in the Second Division of the Sessions Court of Scotland, where the petitioner's good cause of action was determined, and Lord Ordinary issued an interlocutor for proof. However, the action was later dismissed after a second interlocutor was issued by the majority, recalling the first one. After that, an appeal was submitted to the House of Lords.

Legal background:
Up until that point, the prevalent belief held was that manufacturers had no obligation of care to individuals with whom they did not have a contractual arrangement. There were two exceptions to this general rule, though:
  1. The article is dangerous per se.
  2. The manufacturer was aware of the article's hazard, but they purposefully chose to hide this information.
As the appellant's friend had originally bought the bottle, there was no contract between the appellant and the manufacturer, so in this case, the appellant was unable to claim compensation for breach of contract. Accordingly, she claimed that Stevenson, the respondent, had violated the duty of care and caused legal injury through negligence.

It is important to note that although the case involved Scotland, English law was used to decide the matter in question and the applicable Scottish and English laws were consistent.

Issues Raised:
  1. Was the manufacturer of ginger beer aware of a defect in the product that made it unfit for consumption and was it fraudulently concealed from the consumer?
  2. Can the product be classified as dangerous and did the manufacturer forget to warn the consumer about it?
  3. Is it possible to sue for negligence because there was no contract between the plaintiff and the manufacturer?



  • They argued that the respondent produced the ginger beer bottle and sold it to the general public for consumption; the respondent also employed metal caps to seal the bottle, bearing the respondent's company's branding. The response ought to have made sure, as manufacturers, that they have a mechanism in place to make sure snails wouldn't snag their packaged goods.
  • There was an effective inspection mechanism in place to do checks prior to the bottles being sealed.
  • The appellants contend that the respondents' failure to fulfil these obligations resulted in the accident. The respondent owed it to the appellant to take reasonable precautions to ensure that nothing in the bottle would harm a consumer who was invited to consume a product that they manufactured, bottled, labelled, and sealed. They also did not give the consumer a chance to inspect the contents of the bottle. Furthermore, the appellants argued that the current situation qualified under the res Ipsa loquitur norm. The producers' carelessness "spoke for itself" when a snail was found inside the bottle.
  • Lastly, the appellants claimed that the previously stated general principle's exclusions were overly stringent and constrained.


  • The respondents argued that the appellant's injuries were overstated and that they resulted from pre-existing medical issues rather than the alleged snail. As a result, the accusations lacked sufficient evidence and were not relevant enough to support a summons.

A 3:2 majority decided the verdict in favor of Mrs. Donoghue, the appellant. Leading the opinion, Lord Atkin stated that Mrs. Donoghue was clearly entitled to a duty of care in this particular circumstance.

It was decided that:
  1. All end users of the goods have a duty of care to the manufacturer.
  2. Injury was a direct result of a duty breach, and as such, responsibility could only emerge if and only if there was no way to conduct an intermediate inspection of the goods.
  3. According to the accepted theory of privity of contract, the manufacturer owed the appellant no contractual obligations, but it also owed the appellant a general duty of care to guarantee the integrity of the product in question.

A dissenting opinion was offered by Lords Buckmaster and Tomlin, who claimed that the appellant's case violated accepted legal precedents. Lord Buckmaster urged the restriction of the exemption to only those items that were intrinsically dangerous, emphasizing the need to maintain the distinction between dangerous and non-dangerous things.

Furthermore, both of these justices questioned the legality of George v. Skivington (1869) and voiced worry about the potential chain of cases that would follow if the manufacturers' culpability was expanded. According to Lord Buckmaster, placing such a heavy burden on the industrial sector would be irresponsible from both a social and financial standpoint. According to Lord Tomlin, this kind of achievement was illogical.

Established legal principles
  1. Negligence:
    • This case correctly established the tort of negligence as a separate tort. In the past, in order to establish negligence, one had to demonstrate the existence of the contract and its breach. Since then, nonetheless, in order to successfully claim for negligence, one must demonstrate a breach of duty or failure to behave in accordance with reasonable man's standards (a contract is not necessary) and the resulting harm to property.
  2. Duty of Care:
    • According to Lord Atkin, "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" when those products reach the final consumer in the shape that left him. Stated differently, the maker has a responsibility to ensure the safety of all potential customers. As a result, this case opened up a lot of opportunities for consumer rights and protection.
  3. The neighbour principle:
    • This concept was created by Lord Atkin to establish who was entitled to a duty of care. He referred to these people as "neighbours." The concept of reasonable foreseeability could be used to identify these neighbours since it states that the only people who can be held legally liable for harm caused by another person's acts are those who could reasonably be expected to be impacted by that person's actions.

The implications
Thus, the neighbour principle and the degree of duty of care�two essential elements needed to prove liability�were introduced into the still-developing field of early 20th-century tort law through the Donoghue v. Stevenson case law.

A notable observation upon perusing the original Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932) ruling is the substantial discrepancy between Lord Atkins' and Lord Buckmaster's rulings. They both came to different conclusions based on the same set of facts, which is a good sign of the growing complexity the judicial system was dealing with. One aspect of common law was the pre-existing principles, which according to Lord Buckmaster "cannot be changed nor can additions be made to them because any particular meritorious case seems outside their ambit." In light of this, Lord Buckmaster rendered a decision that stayed true to these guidelines.

Lord Atkin, on the other hand, emphasized the critical role that courts play in defending individuals' rights by fostering the establishment of a principle that reframed the idea of liability for negligence. Consequently, he was instrumental in altering the understanding of common law's operation and in the unavoidable development of tort law. The demand for justice even in cases where the law was in conflict with it was one of the main factors that led to the appellant's case being decided in their favor. This case demonstrated how the ideas of justice and law are evolving and served as an excellent illustration of when justice prevails over 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.

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