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The significance of "The snail in the bottle" case

On 26 August 1948, Mrs Donoghue's friend bought her an Irish float, a drink comprised of ice cream and ginger beer, at the Wellmeadow Café in Paisley, Scotland. Little did Mrs Donoghue or her friend know but this drink would be the start of what would later become a landmark case in legal history, shaping tort law and the doctrine of negligence to what we know it to be today.

Mrs Donoghue's bottle of ginger beer was purchased for her by a friend. The bottle was made of a dark opaque glass so it was not until she had finished most of her drink and was emptying the last bit into her tumbler did she discover the decomposing remains of a very dead snail. If her immediate reaction of shock was not enough, she fell ill later that week and was rushed to the Glasgow Royal infirmary where a doctor diagnosed her with gastroenteritis. The stomach problems on top of the dead snail evidently proved too much for Mrs Donoghue who issued proceedings against the manufacturer of the ginger beer, Stevenson, for £500 in damages and the case would eventually make its way to the House of Lords.

The chances of success seemed to be about little to practically non-existent. The manner in which cases like these were settled prior to 1928 was through proving a breach of contract or that the seller knowingly sold dangerous or defective products. However in Mrs Donoghue's case, she had not entered into any contract as technically it was her friend whom had bought her the drink and it would be near impossible to prove that Stevenson had knowingly sold 'dangerous' bottles of ginger-beer. Her solicitor Mr Walter Leechman, attempted a novel approach, he staked the claim that the manufacturer, Stevenson, owed a duty to his consumers to "take reasonable care to ensure his products were safe for human consumption."

Although Mrs Donoghue's initial proceedings at the Scottish Civil court failed, she later made an appeal to the House of Lords which was ultimately successful. The judgement, 3-2, was in Donoghue's favour and deemed that Stevenson was "responsible for the well-being of individuals who consumed his products, given that they could not be inspected." Although Stevenson passed away prior to the conclusion of the case, Donoghue was awarded a fraction of the initial sum she sought- of £200, paid by his estate.

What exactly made the ruling of this case so significant is that it established a number of legal principles that changed the foundations of tort law and negligence. Donoghue v Stevenson most prominently established the principle that negligence is a tort in itself. Ain the past, a plaintiff seeking compensation would have had to prove at minimum, evidence of some contractual arrangement between themselves and the respondent; for instance the sale of an item or a written agreement. Despite the absence of this condition in this case, the presiding judge importantly established that Stevenson ultimately still held the responsibility to ensure that his product was fit for consumption.

The establishment of the 'neighbour principle' is also attributed to this case. In giving his judgement, the presiding judge Lord Atkin drew inspiration from the parable of the Good Samaritan. "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. You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. " This principle has had significant impacts on the field of law especially in the area of personal injury which has been extended beyond just statutory duty to include the neighbour principle.

As prominent a case as Donoghue v Stevenson was, perhaps the most interesting fact about the case was that the facts were for some reason never tested. Was there even really a snail in the ginger beer bottle? We will probably never know.



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