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Tort law - Negligence

Overview: The Snail in the Bottle

Negligence law came into being in 1932 in a landmark decision by the British House of Lords on a case which has come to be known as “The snail in the bottle.” Correctly, the case was Donoghue v Stevenson.[1] It followed a series of cases in which the negligent or reckless actions of defendants were sued upon, and in which the majority of each court expressed their strong disapproval of the law venturing to make determinations on what most would regard as mere mishaps in day-to-day life. However the minority judgments in these cases, perceiving desirability in a law of negligence, built up a favourable line of reasoning. Finally a brave and apparently indignant Mrs Donoghue went all the way to the House of Lords over a bout of gastroenteritis to get her satisfaction. Her lawyers can be credited with convincing the second highest court in the common law world that the minority judgments of the past were in fact the ones who got it right all along. It is probable that cultural change over several decades had a lot to do with it.


In spite of the tsunami of negligence actions which have followed, very little has been added to the underlying workings of negligence since Donoghue v Stevenson. Therefore it is worth studying that case in some depth.


Mrs Donoghue was treated by a friend to a ginger beer and ice cream. She was seated at a table in a cafeteria, and ginger beer was poured for her from a sealed, opaque bottle over a bowl of ice cream. She ate the ice cream. The remainder of the ginger beer was then poured into a glass and out came the remains of a dead, decomposing snail. As she had already consumed some of the contents, Mrs Donoghue fell ill. Of importance to the liability of the manufacturer, the bottle had not been opened or contents inspected from the time it left the factory.


The basis of negligence law was specified by Lord Atkin with reference to the Biblical principle, love your neighbour. The court reasoned that the manufacturer had a duty to take care of anyone who would so closely and directly be affected by their actions that they should reasonably have them in contemplation as being so affected. Lord MacMillan stated that the law requires a degree of diligence on the part of the manufacturer so stringent as to amount to a guarantee of safety. The standard of care expected is to be determined by the reasonable man test as to what potential harm is anticipated. The manufacturer, by intending that the products will be consumed, placed itself in a relationship with them and so acquired a duty of care.




[1] Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562.

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