A Critical Analysis of the Tort of Negligence: A Case Study of Donoghue vs. Stevenson

INTRODUCTION

The Law of Torts is the branch of law that creates standards of behavior for people to act accordingly in the society, a breach of which is redressable by an action for damages or other suitable civil remedies.

The essence of the law of Torts is to minimize harm in the society and ensure the safety of persons and property in the society. One of the frameworks provided by the law of Torts to protect persons and property from injury and damage is the Tort of Negligence.

Negligence is the breach of a duty to take reasonable care which results in damages.

Donoghue v. Stevenson is a landmark case in the Law of Torts that established the principles which form the basis of negligence and expanded the scope of liability for personal injury and property damage under the Law of Torts.

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The revolutionary significance of the decision in the case is in the establishment of a standardized duty of care in negligence cases and the ‘‘neighbor principle’’ as set forth by Lord Atkin.

This work shall therefore carefully elucidate the case of Donoghue v. Stevenson, paying particular attention to the facts of the case, the legal arguments canvassed by the both parties to the case, the decision of the Court in the case, the legal principles established in the case and its relevance to the Law of Torts, particularly the Torts of Negligence.

  • Analysis of the Locus classicus Donoghue v. Stevenson Case

Facts of the Case

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The case involved a woman named Mrs. Donoghue who consumed a bottle of ginger beer, which contained a decomposed snail, leading to her suffering from shock and gastroenteritis. She sued the manufacturer, Mr. Stevenson, for negligence.

The detailed facts of the case is succinctly stated below to wit:

On the 26th of August, 1928, Mr Minchella purchased a ginger beer bottle from Wellmeadow Cafe in Paisley (Scotland) for his friend, Mrs Donoghue, the appellant. The ginger beer bottle was made of dark opaque glass, and thus, there was no reason to suspect that the bottle might have contained anything other than ginger beer.

After consuming almost half of the contents of the bottle, when the rest of the ginger beer was poured into a tumbler, dead, decomposed remains of a snail floated into it. The nauseating sight coupled with the consequences of ingesting the impurities in the bottle caused shock and severe gastro-enteritis to the appellant.

The case was first filed in the Second Division of Sessions Court of Scotland where an interlocutor was issued by Lord Ordinary for proof after a good cause of action of the petitioner was found. But subsequently, another interlocutor by the majority was issued recalling the previous interlocutor and the action was dismissed. An appeal was then filed in the House of Lords.

 

  • The Prominent issue(s) Raised 

The House of Lords,at the time in determining the case, had to determine the issue as to whether the manufacturer owed a duty of care to Mrs. Donoghue, and if so, whether they breached that duty to make him liable in damages.

 

  • The Legal Arguments Canvassed By Both Parties

1. The Appellants;

The Appellants (Donoghue) stated that the respondent, as manufacturers, should have ensured that a system was in place to ensure snails would not get into their packaged products, that is, an efficient system of inspection was there to conduct checks before the bottles were sealed.

According to the appellants, the respondents failed in both these duties and caused this accident. Since the respondent invited the public (including the appellant) to consume a product they manufactured, bottled, labeled, and sealed and offered no opportunity to the consumer to examine their contents, they owed a duty of care to the appellant to ensure nothing in the bottle would injure such a consumer.

Moreover, the appellants contended that the principle of res ipsa loquitur was applicable in the present scenario. The fact that there was a snail in the bottle ‘spoke for itself’ the negligence of the manufacturers.

The Appellants primarily cited the following to support their claim:-

George v. Skivington (1869)– This was an exceptional case that had held that ordinary care was owed to persons using the product even in lack of a contractual relationship,

Sir Brett M.R.’s observation in Heaven v. Pender – where he observed that ‘‘Whenever a reasonable person would foresee that harm would be caused if he did not use reasonable care and skill he owes a duty in tort’’ and,

Lord Dunedin’s observations in Dominion Natural Gas v. Collins and Perkins stated that those who sent out to everyone inherently dangerous articles were subject to a common law duty to take precautions.

2. The Respondents;

The respondents claimed that the allegations of injury to the appellant were exaggerated and not as a cause of the alleged snail but due to existing health problems. Hence, the allegations were irrelevant and insufficient to constitute a proper ground for a summons.

Moreover, they sought to prove that the appellants had no legal basis for the given claim by primarily citing the following cases-

Mullen v. AG Barr & Co Ltd. (1929); 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.

The scenario, in this case, was almost similar to the case in question, except dead mice were discovered instead of a snail. The Scottish Sessions Court dismissed the case due to the absence of a contractual relationship and used that precedent to dismiss the present case as well.

Winterbottom v. Wright – In this case, the issue of contention was whether the manufacturer owed any duty of care to a third party and the judgment was given in negative.

Blacker v. Lake & Elliot, Ld: Hamilton J. observed here that breach of duty in the contract does not give any cause of action to third parties.

The respondents further contended that although most of the relevant precedents dealt with non-food items, there was no logical reason why they would not apply to food items as well.

Decision of the Court

The outcome of the judgment, was by 3:2 majority, decided for the appellant, Mrs. Donoghue. Lord Atkin, leading the judgment, declared that in the present case there was clear duty of care to Mrs. Donoghue. It was held that-

  • The manufacturer owed a duty of care to all end-consumers of their product
  • The said liability could arise if and only if there was no way of intermediate inspection of the product, and thus injury was a proximate cause of breach of duty.
  • The manufacturer did not owe any contractual duty towards the appellant (in line with established doctrine of privity of contract) but at the same time owing to the appellant a general duty of care to ensure the integrity of the said product.

Lord Thankerton and Lord Macmillan concurred.

The Decision in this case laid down the principle of duty of care, which is now a fundamental concept in negligence law worldwide.

Lord Buckmaster and Lord Tomlin, however, presented a dissenting opinion on the grounds that the appellant’s case went against the already established principles.

Lord Buckmaster pointed out the importance of retaining the distinction of dangerous and non-dangerous products and implored the application of the exception to only those objects which were inherently dangerous.

Moreover, both these judges denied the legitimate authority of George v. Skivington (1869) and expressed concern over the cascade of cases that might ensue if the ambit of liability of the manufacturers was widened.

Lord Buckmaster said that it would be socially and economically irresponsible to affix such a wide liability on the manufacturing sector. Lord Tomlin was of the view that such a feat was logically impossible.

 

  • The Key Legal Principles Enunciated and their Relevance to the Law of Torts

The case of Donoghue v. Stevenson garnered widespread importance due to the three basic legal principles it established to wit;

a. The Principle of Negligence as a separate and distinct Tort.

Thetort of negligence as a distinct tort was properly established by this case. Previously, there was a need to prove the presence of the contract and its breach to constitute a negligent act.

However, after this case, one had to prove breach of duty or omission to do something according to standards of a reasonable man (no need for a contract) and consequent legal injury to satisfactorily sue for negligence.

The decision in Donoghue v. Stevenson was groundbreaking because it expanded the concept of duty of care beyond contractual relationships.This decision established that a duty of care could exist even in the absence of a contract, opening the door for a wide range of claims based on negligence.

b. The Principle of Duty of Care

This case also emphasized the importance of foreseeability in establishing a duty of care.

The court held that manufacturers have a responsibility to ensure that their products are safe for consumption and that they should reasonably anticipate that consumers could suffer harm if they fail to meet this standard.

This created a legal duty on manufacturers to take reasonable steps to prevent harm to consumers.

Lord Atkin observed ‘‘…a manufacturer of products, which he sells…to reach the ultimate consumer in the form which left him…owes a duty of care to the consumer”.

In other words, the manufacturer owes a duty of care to all the possible consumers of their products.

This precedent was thus able to initiate numerous avenues in consumer protection and consumer rights.

c. The ‘Neighbour’ Principle

One of the key aspects of the judgment was the development of the “neighbour principle,” coined by Lord Atkin. This principle states that individuals must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions that could reasonably be foreseen as likely to injure others.

In other words, people have a duty of care towards their neighbours, defined as anyone who may be directly affected by their actions.

Lord Atkin developed this principle to determine the individuals to which duty of care was owed. He called such individuals ‘neighbours’.

These neighbours could be determined by the doctrine of reasonable foreseeability- only those individuals who could be reasonably foreseen to be affected by a person’s actions could claim damages in case of injury due to said person’s actions.

Atkin said, ‘‘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 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.’’

 

The Legal Implications of the Case

It therefore follows from the above that, through the case law of Donoghue v. Stevenson, crucial principles required to establish liability- degree of duty of care and the neighbor principle got introduced in the still-nascent field of early 20th-century tort law.

One of the most glaring aspects that come to light on the reading of the original judgment of Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932) is the stark contrast between the judgment of Lord Atkins and Lord Buckmaster.

Both of them reached opposite opinions from the same fact scenario, a situation which is a fine indicator of the rising complexities the legal system was facing.

On one hand, there were the already established principles of common law which as Lord Buckmaster stated ‘‘cannot be changed nor can additions be made to them because any particular meritorious case seems outside their ambit.’’ Accordingly, Lord Buckmaster gave his judgment which did not deviate from these principles.

On the other hand, there was Lord Atkin who reiterated the immense role that judges play in protecting the rights of citizens by ensuring the development of a principle that reoriented the concept of liability from negligence.

As a result, he played a vital role in changing the perspective of how common law works, as well as, in the inevitable evolution of tort law.

One of the driving forces of the decision in favour of the appellant was the need for justice even when law per se was contradictory to it. This case thus highlighted the changing dynamics of the concepts of law and justice and was a good example of a situation where justice takes the front seat instead of law.

Critics of the Donoghue v. Stevenson case argue that the judgment expanded the concept of negligence too broadly, leading to a flood of litigation and imposing a heavy burden on businesses.

They argue that the decision blurred the line between tort and contract law and that it increased the potential liability of manufacturers for harm caused by their products.

However, proponents of the ruling argue that it was a necessary development in the law to protect consumers and ensure accountability for negligent actions.

They believe that manufacturers should be held responsible for the safety of their products and that consumers should have a legal recourse if they suffer harm due to a defect or negligence.

 

CONCLUSION

Donoghue v. Stevenson has had a significant impact on the development of negligence by establishing the duty of care principle and expanding liability beyond contractual relationships.

The case continues to be cited and applied in courts around the world, shaping the standards for determining negligence and protecting individuals from harm caused by others’ negligence.

Donoghue v. Stevenson has, thus, successfully set a benchmark for the standard of duty of care, hence, the significance of this case cannot be understated.

This work and entire discussion has, thus, succinctly discussed and carefully elucidated the case of Donoghue v. Stevenson, critically analyzing the facts of the case, arguments canvassed by the both parties to the case, decision of the Court in the case, the legal principles established in the case and its implications on the law of Law of Torts.

 

About the Author

Emmanuel Uzodinma is an undergraduate law student at the University of Calabar. He has served in various capacities, including Campus Director of Legal Ideas Forum (LIFIN) UNICAL Chapter. Emmanuel has keen interest and passion in legal advocacy, research.

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