Why Donoghue v Stevenson is important
Donoghue v Stevenson represents the birth of the modern-day tort of negligence. This case began the shift from pockets of liability to a general duty to take reasonable care. Lord Atkin said, “I do not think a more important problem has occupied your Lordships in your judicial capacity.” Few could argue that this was wrong.
Donoghue’s friend bought her a bottle of ginger beer from a bar, which was produced by the defendant, Stevenson. The bottle contained a decomposed snail, which was only detected once most of the drink was consumed.
Donoghue had no direct contractual claim against the defendant, nor could she rely on any fraud. Instead, she brought her claim based on the tort of negligence. She arguing that:
“the respondent, as the manufacturer of an article intended for consumption and contained in a receptacle which prevented inspection, owed a duty to her as consumer of the article to take care that there was no noxious element in the goods, that he neglected such duty and is consequently liable for any damage caused by such neglect.” (Lord Buckmaster)
As a matter of law, whether Stevenson owed Donoghue a duty of care in the tort of negligence.
Stevenson owed to Donoghue as a consumer a duty to take reasonable care.
Reasoning and impact
This case is important for understanding the liability of defective product. You can find a fuller explanation about this here. However, the case is most well known for establishing the concept of a general duty to take reasonable care.
Law before Donoghue v Stevenson
Before Donoghue v Stevenson, the Courts focused on specific ‘pockets’ of liability. In effect, the Court made a decision in each case whether a ‘right’ existed and had been breached. In the words of Lord Atkin at p579-80,
It is remarkable how difficult it is to find in the English authorities statements of general application defining the relations between parties that give rise to the duty. The Courts are concerned with the particular relations which come before them in actual litigation, and it is sufficient to say whether the duty exists in those circumstances.
In this way it can be ascertained at any time whether the law recognizes a duty, but only where the case can be referred to some particular species which has been examined and classified.”
Approach in Donoghue v Stevenson
In Donoghue v Stevenson, Lord Atkin attempted to link the hitherto disparate cases and introduce some principle to the law.
Lord Atkin firstly noted that there must be some general, organising principle(s). Nevertheless, he concluded that any attempt to, “seek a complete logical definition of the general principle is probably to go beyond the function of the judge”.
Lord Atkin explained that the duty is likely to be based on some, “general public sentiment of wrongdoing.” This notion was explained by reference to the ‘love thy neighbour’ principle, given substance though the concept of proximity. In Lord Atkin’s words:
“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 being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.”
After outlining this principle, Lord Atkin applied this to the previously decided cases, identifying how they fitted together and how they can be distinguished.
Lord MacMillan also considered the general principles behind the duty of care. In broader terms, he explained the existence and substance of a duty based on the reasonable man. Although he gave less guidance than Lord Atkin, he nevertheless grouped the cases of negligence together by reference to some form of public morality, and then like Lord Atkin explained how this informed the decisions in the previously decided cases cited to the Court.
The House of Lords was not unanimous in its judgement, with Lords Buckmaster and Tomlin dissenting. However, their Lordships did not question this discussion of theory, only whether a duty was in fact owed. This increases the value of Lord Atkin and MacMillan’s discussion of theory.