Famous legal case in common law
Hi everyone. Here is lesson 1 from my textbook entitled:
"Legal English Through Stories"
Donoghue v Stevenson, also known as the Paisley Case, or more colloquially, as the Snail Case.
Area of law: tort/tortious liability.
Issues involved: negligence.
The claimant: Mrs Donoghue
The defendant: Mr Stevenson
Let me tell you an interesting story. This story is a legal story. It concerns a very famous legal case. Every common law system student or lawyer has heard about it many times. It's a breakthrough case. It's a landmark case. It sets a very important precedent. The area of law here (the branch of law) is the law of tort and the type of tort in question here is negligence. This case, yes, you have guessed correctly, is Donoghue v Stevenson.
The facts of the case
The year the story took place is 1928. The location is Paisly near Glasgow. Mrs Donoghue lived in Glasgow. On 26 August 1928 she travelled from her home city to Paisley. Once there, she met with her friend at a cafe.
What happened now is very important. All the details are very relevant. Her friend, not Mrs Donaghue herself, ordered a ginger beer and an ice cream for Mrs Donoghue. The beer bottle was made of opaque glass. It wasn't transparent. You couldn't see what was inside. The cafe's owner, Mr Minchella, started pouring the beer out of the bottle into Mrs Donoghue's ice cream to make something called 'an ice cream float' which was a popular delicacy. Mrs Donoghue promptly started to eat. Then Mr Minchella started pouring the rest of the beer from the opaque bottle into the friend's glass. To their shock and horror, the two women saw something that was to shape a lot of contemporary common law, especially the area of tort, and make an indelible mark on the legal world. Out of the bottle floated the partly decomposed remains of a snail. Both women gasped in disbelief. A rotten animal inside a bottle? Outrageous! Mrs Donoghue stated that she was made ill by what she had seen. It' s undoubtedly a fact that she indeed received medical treatment from a doctor for 3 days after the unfortunate event. The treatment was for gastro-enteritis. This is a very serious illness of the bowels. Your stomach hurts and becomes swollen. It can last for weeks or months and is very painful. She suffered a lot. This is what she contended anyway. Three weeks elapsed and she received further treatment in a hospital in Glasgow. She also made an additional claim. She claimed she had suffered from 'nervous shock". Mrs Donoghue felt that she had been subjected to a lot of pain and suffering. She thought she deserved justice. She decided to claim damages to compensate her for all her troubles. Damages are of course the most common remedy. But she had a huge problem. It was her friend who had ordered and paid for the food and drinks. Therefore, there was a contractual relationship between her friend and Mr Minchella, the pub owner. If the friend had sued Mr Minchella, the case would have been uncomplicated and straightforward. Mr Minchella was undeniably, without a shadow of a doubt, in breach of the contract of sale. He had probably sold a faulty and dangerous product. The friend could have sued him and would have won an award of damages. Probably a substantial award. But the friend didn't suffer from anything. It was Mrs Donoghue who was the injured party in this case and so she decided to take legal action. She became the claimant in our story.
She had a legal dilemma, though, which was this: whom should I sue? Against whom should I bring an action? The solution: Mrs Donoghue decided to bring an action against the manufacturer of the ginger beer, Mr Stevenson. He is the defendant in this case. What were the grounds for her lawsuit? Well, this is when it gets really interesting. She hired a very brave and determined solicitor, Mr Leechman. Despite the fact that there was no precedent for such an action, Mr Leechman decided to take the case.
The procedural history of the case and the outcome of the case.
Mrs Donoghue brought a lawsuit in the court of first instance in which she claimed £500 damages and costs. The court agreed with her and found for her. The judge found the defendant negligent. The dispute was based on a point of law: was there a breach of duty of care owed by the defendant to the claimant? It was not based on a point of fact.
The defendant, Mr Stevenson, decided to appeal. He lodged an appeal contesting the judgment of the court of first instance. This time he won. The appellate judges agreed. In doing so, the judges followed two precedents they themselves had set in two identical previous cases. In each of these previous cases, a mouse had been found in a bottle of ginger beer. Just like in those two cases the judges ruled that the manufacturer of the beer was not at fault, was not negligent and so was not liable for what had happened. They found for the appellant, Mr Stevenson. The respondent, Mrs Donoghue appealed against this ruling. The case went up to the highest court in the land at that time - the House of Lords. Even though Mrs Donoghue could not afford the costs involved, the judges agreed to hear the case. They held that Mr Stevenson had indeed been negligent. They ruled that he had owed a duty of care to Mrs Donoghue. They established a new precedent, a new principle whereby a manufacturer must take reasonable care to make sure that their product is fit for consumption. This greatly broadened the liability of producers. It imposed a greater standard of care on them.
The legal issue.
Is a manufacturer of a product intended for human consumption liable to the ultimate consumer for any harm caused? Or is the liability limited to special cases? For instance, when the product is very dangerous or cannot be properly inspected?