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Donoghue v Stevenson: Case Summary, Judgment and Analysis

Facts, issues and decision of the court in Donoghue v Stevenson

The case of Donoghue v Stevenson  [1932] UKHL 100 is one of the celebrated cases that must be mentioned when determining when a duty of care exist in negligence. In law, there is no general duty to take care. If there were indeed a duty not to cause damage to another carelessly, there would be no need to establish the existence of a duty in each case, since this would be implied in all situations.

Facts, issues and decision of the court in Donoghue v Stevenson

Facts, issues and decision of the court in Donoghue v Stevenson

But on the other hand, there are only particular duties, situations and areas of non liability not covered by them. Here, the plaintiff would have to show that his case falls within a duty or situation recognized by the law; or, as is often the case, the defendant will have to persuade the court, that in the circumstances, the case does not fall within any duty situation. It is therefore left for the plaintiff to bring his case within a recognized duty or else, he must persuade the cort to create a new one to meet his situation.

The case of Donoghue v Stevenson is one of the most popular cases where the House of Lords formulated a new principle to the plaintiff’s situation.

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Facts of the case of Donoghue v Stevenson

In the case of Donoghue v. Stevenson a manufacturer of a ginger beer sold ginger beer in an opaque bottle to a retailer. A boy bought a bottle of the ginger beer from the retailer and treated his girlfriend to its contents. The girl alleged that she suffered some injury as a result of seeing and drinking the conterminated content of the beer manufactured by the defendant.

The ginger beer, in fact, contained decomposed remains of a snail. Since she had not, himself, been in a contractual relationship with the proprietor she couldn’t sue him, and she was forced to sue the respondent manufacturers of the ginger beer. The boy, on his part, could not sue anyone because he did not suffer any injury.

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Judgement of the court in Donoghue v Stevenson  [1932] UKHL 100

The Scottish Court held that they could not find any legal connection between the girl and the manufacturer. But, when the case got to the house of Lords, a majority of the court held that the manufacturer owed her a duty to take care that the bottle did not contain noxious matter and that he would be liable if that duty was broken. Accordingly to Lord Atkin:

The rule that you are to love your neighbor becomes, in law, you must not injure your neighbor; and the lawyer’s question, ‘who is why neighbor? 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 neighbor. Who, then, in law is my neighbor?

The answer seems to be persons who are closely or directly affected by my acts that i ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when i am directing my mind to the acts of omissions which are called in question.”

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Facts, issues and decision of the court in Donoghue v Stevenson

Facts, issues and decision of the court in Donoghue v Stevenson

Analysis of the court’s decision in Donoghue v Stevenson

Following the decision of the court in Donoghue v Stevenson, a duty is owed wherever it is foreseeable, in the circumstances, that if the defendant does not exercise due care, he will harm the plaintiff. This is the neighborhood principle. Therefore, by holding that the manufacturer owed a duty of care to the injured plaintiff, the court made tortuous liability to exist in the absence of privity of contract.

The test is, thus, one of close relationship and the criterion is whether the likelihood of injury ought to have been foreseen by the defendant. This proximity, foresight or neighborhood test by Lord Atkin is tantamount to saying that there is a general duty of care towards anyone who is foreseably likely to be injured by your carelessness.

Neighbor, as used here, is not restrictive but includes all who will be proximately or closely affected by my actions. Thus, a consumer of tinned milk the United States is the neighbor of the manufacturer in Nigeria, as the duty of care here is owed to the ultimate consumer. In Grant v Australian Knitting Mills Ltd [1936] A.C 85. 101 – 102 the Privy council held that the defendant manufacturers were liable to the ultimate purchaser of the underwear which they had manufactured and which contained a chemical that gave plaintiff a skill disease when he wore them. Lord MacMillan in the case of Donoghue v Stevenson also corroborated that the category of negligence are never close.

It is worthwhile to know that the neighborhood principle created by Lord Atkin has been adopted in many countries of the world. For instance, in the Nigerian case of Osemobor v Niger Biscuits Co. Ltd [1973]7 CCHCJ. 71, the plaintiff purchased a packet of Biscuits manufactured by the defendant. While eating it, she felt something hard in her mouth which turned out to be a decade tooth. As a result, she became ill and required medical attention. The defendants were held liable in Negligence. The court stated that a manufacturer, who intends his goods to be used or consumed by others is under a duty to take reasonable care in their manufacture so that they can be used and consumed in a manner intended without causing physical damage to person or property.

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By way of conclusion, it is pertinent to note that the case of Donoghue v Stevenson is one of the locus classicus cases that should be cited whenever the issue as to whether a duty exist in negligence. There is no doubt that some judgement have slightly shaped the legal principle in this case. Nonetheless, as at the time this article was written, i am not aware of any statutory or judicial provision that bluntly opposed this principle.

Hope this article was helpful? Do send your comments and contributions below this post. If you have any question to ask, please send them via the comment section below. I will be glad to give you a reply.

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