Donoghue v Stevenson  UKHL 100: The tort of negligence is a wrong that occurs where a person owes another a duty of care and breaches that duty, thus, causing a loss or damage as a result.
The precedents before the case of Donoghue v. Stevenson mostly did not find a duty of care unless there had been a contract between the parties. The case of Mullen v AG Barr & Co Ltd is one of those cases. In this case, two children and Jeanie Orbine found dead mice in their bottles of ginger beer, separately. They were tried in different courts, and where Jeanie Orbine succeeded to claim for damages, the two children John Mullen and Francis Mullen did not succeed. On appeal to the Court of Sessions, it was argued that negligence would be presumed even if there was no evidence that, in preparing the ginger beers, the manufacturers had been negligent. The court ruled against the claimants, maintaining that there needed to be a contractual relationship between the parties.
There was, however, a dissenting judgement by Lord Hunter who was of the opinion that a specific duty of care was owed especially because the contents of the bottle of ginger beer could not be examined prior to purchase or consumption.
The case of Donoghue v Stevenson is a landmark case that established the principle of duty of care and laid a foundation for the tort of negligence. It established that regardless of the absence of a contractual relationship between parties, a duty of care could arise.
Table of Content
Facts of Donoghue v Stevenson
May Donoghue went to the Wellmeadow Cafe at Paisley with her friend, where she ordered a Scotsman Ice-cream float made of ice cream and ginger beer. This was served by the owner of the cafe who bringing a tumbler of ice cream and ginger beer, poured some ginger beer in the ice cream from a bottle labelled D. Stevenson, Glen Lane, Paisley.
Later when Donoghue’s friend poured the remaining ginger beer in the tumbler of ice cream, a decomposed snail floated out of the bottle.
According to Donoghue, the sight of the decomposed snail had made her ill and she also had abdominal pain. Also, when she consulted a doctor, she was diagnosed with gastroenteritis and shock.
Donoghue’s friend recorded the contact details of David Stevenson, the manufacturer of the ginger beer.
A writ was issued against David Stevenson by Donoghue’s solicitor Walter Leechman, claiming £500 damages and £50 costs.
While, normally the remedy sought for products that were defective would be brought under a contract of sale, because such a relationship did not exist between Donoghue and Stevenson, the only way she could obtain remedy was to bring an action for damages for the negligence of the manufacturer.
Issues Determined in Donoghue v Stevenson
1. Whether or not Stevenson owed Donoghue a duty of care in the absence of a contractual relationship between them.
Also see: Best countries to practice law in world
Judgement of Court In Donoghue v Stevenson  UKHL 100
Donoghue argued that Stevenson owed a duty of care to his customers who were to consume his ginger beer, to have an effective system to clean his bottle and keep it away from snails.
Stevenson denied having snails in any of his bottles, arguing that Donoghue’s health problems had been caused by her own bad health conditions. He stated that the facts were not proved, he did not cause Donoghue any harm, and that the damages claimed were excessive.
The matter was first heard in the Outer House of the Court of Sessions before Lord Moncrieff. Here, the owner of the café was added as a defendant but later dropped him because of his lack of contractual relationship with Donoghue, as the ginger beer was purchased by her friend and the fact that the owner of the cafe could not have possibly examined the content of the bottle.
Lord Moncrieff, dismissed the argument and case law that required that there must be a contractual relationship between the parties before liability can be incurred for negligence in preparing goods for consumption. He described the principle as narrow.
Stevenson appealed to the Inner House of the Court of Sessions which was presided over by four judges who had heard the case of Mullen v AG Barr & Co Ltd where it was held that no duty of care could arise in the absence of a contractual relationship. Thus, the appeal was allowed by the majority of the judges while Lord Hunter dissented again.
Donoghue appealed to the House of Lords. The judges who heard her appeal were Lord Atkin, Lord Thankerton, Lord Tomlin, Lord Buckmaster and Lord MacMillan. Donoghue’s Counsel argued that Stevenson owed a duty of care that was independent of contract because the bottles in which the ginger beers come in could not be examined and also, because it was meant for human consumption.
Stevenson’s Counsel argued that it was an established law in England and Scotland that no duty was owed by manufacturers to anybody with whom they had no direct contract. They argued that the exceptions which were created in English and Scottish laws were not present in this case; that is, that the ginger beer was not intrinsically dangerous, and that the defendant, Stevenson, was not aware that the product was dangerous.
The House of Lords held in favour of Donoghue, albeit, not unanimously.
According to Lord Atkin, the case was an important one because of the bearing the decision on it would have on public health. To him, the moral rule that requires one to love their neighbour, in law, manifests as the rule that one has to take care not to injure his neighbour. He says that care must be taken, and such care must be reasonable, in order not to put one’s neighbour in danger or cause one’s neighbour an injury that is foreseeable. He defined a neighbour as one who will be directly affected by one’s action or omission so much so that one has to put such a person in his contemplation while he does such action or makes such omission.Recommended: Why Lawyers put on wig and gown in court
Conclusively, the case of Donoghue v Stevenson established that a duty of care is owed to a person who will be affected by one’s actions. Such a person is a neighbour and can bring an action in damages where he suffers an injury. This is regardless of the absence of a contractual relationship.
Edeh Samuel Chukwuemeka ACMC, is a Law Student and a Certified Mediator/Conciliator in Nigeria. He is also a Developer with knowledge in HTML, CSS, JS, PHP and React Native. Samuel is bent on changing the legal profession by building Web and Mobile Apps that will make legal research a lot easier.