The snail in the ginger beer bottle
On evening in 1928, in the Scottish town of Paisley, Ms Donoghue and a friend enjoyed refreshments in a restaurant. Donoghue ordered a ginger beer ice cream float, and the proprietor served her a tumbler of ice cream and poured ginger beer on it from a brown and opaque bottle labelled “D. Stevenson, Glen Lane, Paisley“. All was well until the friend poured the remainder of the ginger beer for Donoghue, and a snail, in a state of decomposition, emerged from the bottle.
Donoghue sued Mr Stevenson, averring that she has suffered shock and severe gastroenteritis, and claimed damages of GBP 500 (about GBP 30 000 in current value). Stevenson denied being the manufacturer of the relevant bottle of ginger beer, and raised the legal defence of privity of contract: if he was the manufacturer, his duty of care was only towards the person to whom he supplied the ginger beer (the restaurant proprietor) and not to any third party (like Donoghue) with whom he had no contract.
As a first step, only the legal defence was litigated – all the way to the House of Lords, the highest court of appeal in the UK until 30 July 2009. The Law Lords each delivered a separate judgment (in total consisting of more than 22 000 words). On 26 May 1932, in Donoghue v Stevenson, by a majority of three to two, they ruled in favour of Donoghue.
The rule in Donoghue v Stevenson is that, as an exception to the legal defence of privity of contract, the manufacturer owes the consumer a duty of care when, through the intermediary of a dealer, the manufacturer delivers to the consumer goods whose freedom from defect neither the dealer nor the consumer was in any position to ascertain.
The most celebrated quote for the case is the ‘translation’ by Lord Atkin of the basic teaching of Christianity – that you should love your neighbour – into law:
“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.”
The House of Lords ruled only on the legal defence (privity of contract). Accordingly, the case proceeded in a lower Court on the merits; where Donoghue had to prove her claim (including that Stevenson had manufactured the relevant bottle of ginger beer, that Stevenson had been negligent, that this snail had caused her illness, and the quantum of her damages). This never happened. Stevenson died before the trial date, and apparently the executor of his estate reached an out-of-court settlement with Donoghue.
The rule in Donoghue v Stevenson is effectively part of South African law. Under the Consumer Protection Act, the liability of a manufacturer is more stringent than under the rule.