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Legal skills and debates in Scotland
Legal skills and debates in Scotland

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1  The facts

Mrs Donoghue drank a bottle of ginger beer purchased for her by her friend at a cafe in Paisley. The bottle, which contained the decomposed remains of a snail, was manufactured by the defendant Mr Stevenson. The bottle was opaque in colour and sealed so the snail could not be detected until Mrs Donoghue had already consumed a large part of the ginger beer. She claimed to suffer from shock and severe gastroenteritis as a result of the incident.

The contract of sale to purchase the ginger beer was between Mrs Donoghue’s friend and the shop owner, so there was no direct contractual relationship between Donoghue (herself) and Stevenson (the manufacturer).

Photograph is of a memorial stone commemorating the “Snail In The Bottle” case.
Figure 1Memorial stone at the site of the Wellmeadow Café, Paisley

Mrs Donoghue sued Mr Stevenson based on the law of delict (referred to as the law of negligence in England and Wales). Delict is a civil law ‘tort’ in which one person ‘B’ can seek a remedy from another ‘A’ for injury or loss suffered due to A not taking reasonable care or skill in performing a task.

Delict covers certain cases where there is no contract between the parties and creates a ‘duty of care’ from one person owed to another, to reach a certain level of competence in their actions. For example, if you drive a car you owe a ‘duty of care’ to other road users to take reasonable care when driving your car. This creates a legal relationship between you and them if you negligently cause injury to another road user, even though you do not have a contract with them.

In Donoghue, the judges had to decide whether Stevenson owed a duty of care to Donoghue. Was the relationship between them sufficiently close that Stevenson should be required by law to exercise a certain degree of care in carrying out particular tasks? Specifically, when Mr Stevenson manufactured a bottle of ginger beer, sealing it in a container in such a way that it would not be possible to inspect it before drinking it, and knowing that it would be drunk by a consumer, was he required by law to take reasonable care to ensure that the consumer was not injured by the contents of the bottle?

Images of some of the judges from the House of Lords who heard the case of 'Donoghue'
Figure 2 Lord Atkin (1867–1944) and Lord Buckmaster (1861–1934)

The case was brought in the Scottish courts. In the initial hearing, the judge found in favour of the pursuer Mrs Donoghue. This was appealed successfully by the defendant, Mr Stevenson, to a higher court. Donoghue then appealed further to the House of Lords, then the highest court in the UK for civil cases from Scotland. It is the House of Lords judgment that you will consider here.

Lord Atkin’s judgment stated:

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.

Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562

This is the ‘neighbour principle’, a way of describing at a general level which relationships give rise to a duty in law to take care.