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Donoghue v. Stevenson
Donoghue (or McAlister) v. Stevenson,  A.C. 532, 1932 S.C.(H.L.) 31, is a famous House of Lords case in the area of the common law of tort/delict. It is perhaps most well known for the statement of Lord Atkin regarding the existence of a duty of care in Anglo-American law. Although Donoghue v. Stevenson was a Scottish case, it was undisputed by the parties that the Scots law — based on the civil law and not the common law — and the English law were identical on this issue. Consequently, the reasoning in this case has taken root in many countries.
The case started in the Outer House of the Court of Session, where the Lord Ordinary repelled the defender Stevenson's plea to the relevancy and allowed a proof, i.e. he allowed the case to go to trial. It was this decision which was reclaimed to the Inner House of the Court of Session, which reversed the Lord Ordinary's interlocutor and said that there was no cause of action. The pursuer, Mrs. Donoghue, then appealed in forma pauperis to the House of Lords which gave its famous judgment that there was indeed a case to answer, and remitted the question to the Lord Ordinary to hear the case on the merits.
All of this proceeded on the assumption that the facts were as claimed by the appellant, May Donoghue. She claimed that on August 26 1928 she drank some of the contents of a bottle of ginger-beer, manufactured by the respondent, which a friend had bought for her at a cafe in Paisley, Scotland. When her friend poured the remainder of the bottle's contents into Mrs Donoghue's tumbler, "a snail, which was in a state of decomposition, floated out of the bottle". The bottle being opaque, the snail could not have been detected until the greater part of the contents of the bottle had been poured. As a result Mrs Donoghue alleged that she suffered from shock and severe gastroenteritis. Given that her friend had bought the drink there was no contract between Mrs Donoghue and the retailer, while the friend who did have a contract with the retailer was unaffected by the event and could not seek damages on her behalf. Donoghue accordingly instituted the proceedings against the manufacturer of the ginger-beer.
Because of the preliminary nature of the case, some of the facts are unclear, the most central of these being whether there was a snail in the bottle at all. Lord Justice MacKinnon said in a speech in 1942 that when the facts came to be tried, it was found that there was no snail, and this was later repeated by Lord Justice Jenkins in the case of Adler v. Dickson. The statement seems to have been based on information given to MacKinnon by David Stevenson’s counsel, later Lord Normand. As it so happened, the case never went to proof as the it was settled (for £200) by Mr Stevenson's executors following his death. Other uncertainties are whether the animal was a snail or a slug; whether the bottle did indeed contain ginger beer ("ginger" being the Scottish word for a carbonated drink); whether the drink was part of an ice cream float; and the identity of Mrs Donoghue's friend.
Lord Atkin's statement
Lord Atkin's statement about the foreseeability of the effects of one's acts on one's neighbours is central to the existence of a duty of care in the law of tort/delict, especially on the then developing nascent tort/delict of negligence. In this judgement he formulates what is commonly known as the "neighbour principle".
- There must be, and is, some general conception of relations giving rise to a duty of care, of which the particular cases found in the books are but instances. ... 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 long as so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions that are called in question.
- — from the judgment (at 580)
- Adler v. Dickson  1 W.L.R. 1482 at 1483 (Practice Note)
- Heuston, R.F.V. Donoghue v. Stevenson in Retrospect (1957), 20 M.L.R. 1
- Mrs. Donoghue’s Journey, Scottish Council of Law Reporting
- Original text of the case
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