How did a snail in a bottle change the law?

I give you the case of Donoghue vs Stevenson…

On the 26th of August 1928 the law surrounding negligence (a failure to exercise appropriate ruled care expected to be exercised amongst specified circumstances) changed for the better when Mrs Donoghue’s friend bought her a ginger beer. Mrs Donoghue consumed about half of the bottle, made out of dark opaque glass, then she poured the remains of her drink into a tumbler. It was at this point that Mrs Donoghue realised there were decomposed remains of a snail floating in her drink… This caused her shock and severe gasto-enteritis (A condition characterised by irritation and inflammation of the stomach and intestines.) As Mrs Donoghue was not a party to any contract, due to the fact that her friend bought her the drink not herself, she was not able to claim breach of warranty (failure of a seller to fulfill the terms of a promise made concerning the quality of the product.). Therefore, Mrs Donoghue issued proceedings against Stevenson, the manufacturer, which went onto the House of Lords.

The question for the House of Lords was if the manufacturer owed Mrs Donoghue a “duty of care” (a standard of reasonable care while performing any acts that could be foreseeable to harm others”) in the absence of contractual relations. The law of negligence at the time was very narrow and was invoked only if there was some established contractual relationship; absent of a contract, a manufacturer owed no duty of care to a consumer when putting a product on the market except if the manufacturer committed fraud.

So the House of Lords decided that there does not need to be a contractual relationship for a duty to be established and that manufacturers owe a duty of care to the consumers who they intend to use their product. The primary outcome of this case was what is best known as the ‘neighbour principle’ by Lord Atkin, who said:

“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 affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.”

The outcome of Donoghue has echoed through law as a whole. A snail in a bottle essentially birthed a whole new area of law… but the facts were never actually tested in the case so we will never actually know if there was a snail in the bottle!

Case facts taken from


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