As we approach the 85th anniversary of arguably the most influential decision in the history of the law of torts, we should reflect on the ground-breaking precedent the British House of Lords established on May 26, 1932, in the case of Donoghue v. Stevenson.
Canadian jurist A.M. Linden described Donoghue v. Stevenson as “a seed of an oak tree, a source of inspiration, a beacon of hope, a fountain of sparkling wisdom, a skyrocket bursting in the midnight sky.”
Sometimes referred to as the “snail in the bottle” case, the incident dates back to August 1928 when the plaintiff, Mrs. Donoghue, and her friend were in a café in Paisley, Scotland. Donoghue’s friend purchased a ginger beer manufactured by Mr. Stevenson that came in a dark opaque glass bottle sealed with a metal cap and bearing the Stevenson label. The café owner poured the ginger beer into a tumbler for Donoghue. A while later when her friend was replenishing Donoghue’s tumbler, a decomposed snail poured out of the ginger beer bottle, sending Mrs. Donoghue into shock. She also contracted severe gastroenteritis.
Rocco Neglia, Vice-President, Claims, Economical Insurance
Donoghue sought £500 in damages from Stevenson for shock and gastroenteritis that she believed were caused by the incident. The case found its way to the House of Lords to decide if a duty of care existed.
In May 1932, the Law Lords issued their judgement. By a majority of three to two, the Law Lords agreed that Donoghue was owed a duty of care under what became known as the “neighbour principle” and that she could bring an action against Stevenson.
Donoghue faced legal hurdles before getting her favourable decision. Weeks before she took action against Stevenson, the very same court had decided on two similar cases contrary to her position.
In Mullen v. AG Barr & Company and Oribine v. Barr & Company, Mrs. Mullen purchased a ginger beer from a retailer. The product was manufactured in Scotland by Barr & Company. The ginger beer was also sold in a dark glass bottle. Mrs. Mullen took home the bottle of ginger beer and her two children drank the contents, after which a dead mouse was noticed at the bottom of the bottle. The children took ill as a result of consuming the bottle’s contaminated contents. The Mullens brought an action against the manufacturer, seeking £75 in damages for each child. The suit was dismissed against Barr & Company. The Mullens appealed to the Court of Session.
During the same period, Mrs. Oribine’s son purchased a ginger beer for her, which was also manufactured by Barr & Company and sold in a dark glass bottle. After consuming part of the contents, Mrs. Oribine noticed a dead mouse in the bottle. She too became ill, and brought an action against the manufacturer. Unlike the Mullen’s case, Mrs. Oribine was successful in her suit.
The manufacturer appealed to the Court of Session. Both appeals were consolidated and heard at the same time in March 1929. The plaintiffs in both cases were not successful. The Court held that negligence had to be proven. The facts that mice were in the bottle did not in and of itself prove negligence, meaning negligence cannot be inferred since the Court concluded that the manufacturer had an industry-leading bottle cleaning system. The Court went further by stating that even if the plaintiffs had established negligence on the part of the manufacturer, no duty was owed to the Mullen children or to Mrs. Oribine, as neither party had purchased the ginger beer.
The other challenge the Donoghue suit had to overcome was Winterbottom v Wright-the leading case in product liability at the time-involving a mail driver who was injured while driving a coach owned by the defendant. The plaintiff’s employer had a contract with the defendant to provide horses and drivers. The plaintiff was not successful against the defendant, even though the defendant provided a faulty coach. The Court found there was no duty outside a contract owed to the plaintiff. In other words, there was no contractual privity between the parties.
In referencing Principles of Law of Negligence, published in 1889, Matthew Chapman in his book, The Snail and the Ginger Beer: The Singular Case of Donoghue v Stevenson, notes that at the time there were 56 different duties of care which had previously been recognized. It is this legal context that makes Donoghue such a pivotal case in the historical evolution of the tort of negligence.
There are predominately two legal issues that emerge from analyzing the Donoghue case. The first involves whether a manufacturer of products is liable in negligence for damages suffered by a consumer with whom it had no direct relationship. In a three-to-two majority decision, the House of Lords answered this in the affirmative, which overturned the decision of Winterbottom v Wright, i.e. an action can only arise within the confines of a contract.
As a result of Donoghue, the law of negligence in the area of product liability established that negligent manufacturers owe a duty of care to all foreseeable consumers.
A secondary legal issue in Donoghue was the development of the ‘neighbour principle’ as a means of dealing with the general duty of care. The combination of the primary issue (does a manufacturer owe a duty to the ultimate consumer?) coupled with the secondary issue (situation-to-situation versus a general approach to the duty of care) is what defines Donoghue as a foundational case in the history of negligence.
It took some 30 years for Donoghue to gain traction as a viable principle in establishing the applicability of the duty of care. Donoghue also brought in similar adaptability of the neighbour principle to other Common Law jurisdictions. In Canada, the current approach, established in Cooper v Hobart  3 SCR 537, states that if a case falls within a previously recognized duty, a prima facie duty is found.
And so viva Donoghue, 85 years later the neighbour principle continues to play a defining role on our conduct as we go about our daily activities.
Rocco Neglia is Vice-President, Claims at Economical Insurance, and current LLM student.