CASE ANALYSIS: DONOGHUE v. STEVENSON (1932) AC 562
Author: Nomaan Quasim (Aligarh Muslim University)
Donoghue v. Stevenson is a very famous case related to tort of negligence. Every law student definitely heard about this case in his/her law school journey. This case set the foundation stone of the tort of negligence and also describes Lord Atkin’s famous “neighbour principle”, the common law duty of care is founded on this principle.
WHAT IS TORT OF NEGLIGENCE?
The word negligence derived from the Latin word “neglegentia”, meaning (carelessness) which means the failure to use the care that a normally careful person would in a given situation. When we discuss negligence in legal sense it constitutes an actionable tort. Negligence refers to a person’s action that are either irrational or careless, or a legal breach of responsibility to exercise reasonable care which cause injury to another person.
In the words of Professor Winfield, “negligence is the breach of a legal duty to take care which results in damages, undesired by the defendant to the plaintiff”.
Let’s see the famous case of Donoghue v. Stevenson, which shaped the law of torts and the doctrine of negligence in particular. This case also known as “snail in the bottle case”, is a very significant case in western law.
FACTS OF THE CASE
Appellant: Mrs. Donoghue – the consumer of the ginger-beer
Respondent: Mr. Stevenson- the owner of the café
The bottle of ginger-beer bought by the Mrs. Donoghue’s friend from Wellmeadow café in Paisley (Scotland), on August 26, 1928. The bottle of the ginger-beer was dark opaque so for a normal person it was impossible to detect the material or content of the bottle. Thus, there was no reason to believe that the bottle contained anything but ginger-beer. After consuming half of the content of the bottle she wanted to pour rest of the material of the bottle into a tumbler. She saw the decomposed remains of a snail floating out at this point, allegedly giving her shock and severe gastroenteritis.
She brought an action against the manufacturer of the ginger-beer (Mr. David Stevenson) in the court of sessions, the highest civil court in Scotland, for the recovery of damages that she had suffered after the consumption of remaining part of the ginger-beer.
A very general rule pleaded by the manufacturer of the ginger-beer; there is no duty of care to anyone if they did not have a contractual relation with the manufacturer or producer. Mrs. Donoghue could not claim against the manufacturer because she did not buy the ginger-beer herself. Here, Mrs. Donoghue’s friend could claim against the café in contractual obligation but not for Mrs. Donoghue’s illness.
There is a two exception of this rule:
- The article is dangerous per se.
- The maker or manufacturer of the article, deliberately concealed the noxious facts.
Does a ginger-beer bottle producer owe a duty of care to the final consumer even if he didn’t sell to him directly, rather through a distributor?
DECISION OF THE COURT
In this case, the leading judgement was delivered by Lord Atkin in 3-2 majority in 1932. In the favour of the appellant (Mrs. Donoghue). The house of Lord held that-
- The manufacturer owed a duty to take care of their product and make sure it did not contain any noxious matter. Manufacturer would be liable for the breach of duty.
According to Lord Atkin, “a manufacturer of the products, which he sells in such a form as to show that he intends them to reach the ultimate consumer in the form in which they left him with no reasonable possibility of intermediate examination and with the knowledge that the absence of reasonable care in the preparation or putting up of the products will result in an injury to the consumer’s life or property, owes a duty to the consumer to take that reasonable care”.
- If there is no any intermediate examination of product and the same duty of care was avoided by the manufacturer and it causes injury to the consumer so in this condition they would be liable.
- There need not any contractual relationship, or privity to sue the manufacturer for the negligence. It is a general duty of the manufacturer to protect his/her consumer from damages.
In this case court recognised the “neighbour principle”, “a neighbour is anyone who would be so closely and directly affected by your actions that you should have them in mind when making decisions”.
We must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omission which we can reasonably foresee and is likely to injure our neighbour. This principle is based on “love thy neighbour” from the Bible.
This case correctly established the tort of negligence as a distinct tort. After this case, one had to prove breach of duty from the side of manufacturer and after this he could sue the manufacturer for the negligence. There need not be any kind of previous contract. Like, if manufacturer of the product is unable to perform his duties and the same led to dangerous repercussions so in that condition we brought an action for tort of negligence. Like in this case Mrs. Donoghue could not prove a contractual relationship with Stevenson, since she had not purchased the drink herself, but the decision of Lord Atkin established that Stevenson was nevertheless accountable for the integrity of his product.
The other thing is that there should be a duty of care. Like if manufacturer make any product which create danger or prove noxious in any circumstances so in that condition manufacturer would be liable because he owes a duty of care towards consumer. This precedent has grown to the point where it currently serves as the foundation for regulations that protect customers against tainted or defective goods. But now currently there are several laws which protect the interest of the consumers.
The last thing in this case, Mrs. Donoghue acted as “neighbour” rather than party in a contract. It is pronounced by Lord Atkin that we should take reasonable care to protect our neighbour and make sure he/she is not affected by our actions.