Donoghue v Stevenson is a landmark English case, which had a profound impact on the principles of tort law. This case concerns Ms. Donoghue, a customer in one of the cafs, who suffered with gastroenteritis and serious shock after discovering the remains of a snail in a bottle of ginger beer. The court opined that the caf owner violate his duty of care, and thus, should pay a compensation to injured Donoghue. Due to this case, nowadays, injured persons have an opportunity to bring claim irrespectively of the existence of a contract with a party, who caused harm. Also, the case established a duty of care, which subsequently became one of the major elements of the tort claims.


Donoghue and her friend ordered a bottle of ginger beer at Minchellas caf in Paisley (Harpwood, 2008, p. 19). The ginger beer has been manufactured by the owner of the caf. Donoghue's friend paid of the bottle (Harpwood, 2008,p. 19). Donoghue drank the beer, and after some time she had discovered the remains of a decomposed snail (Harpwood, 2008, p. 19). Afterwards Donoghue suffered gastroenteritis and nervous shock caused by drinking the ginger beer and the nauseating sight of the foreign body in her drink' (Harpwood, 2008, p. 19). Subsequently, Donoghue brought an action against the caf owner claiming damages for personal injury (Harpwood, 2008, p. 19). The case further proceeded to the House of Lords.

Statement of Issue

The Donoghue case was focused on two main issues. The first issue was whether Donoghue had the right to bring an action for negligence, considering the fact that there was no contract between her and the caf owner. At this point, it is important to mention that it was not until the early 19th century, when injured persons obtain a limited right to sue in tort (O'Sullivan Bates, 1983, p.80). In other words, in the period concerned, physically injured parties usually had to sue in contract. Therefore, only parties to a contract could bring an action against the party that caused harm. Gladwell v. Steggal, the 1839 case, has brought some changes to this principle. In this case, the court ruled that the doctor owed a duty of care to his minor patient, a girl, notwithstanding the fact that the contract was concluded not between him and the girl, but between him and the girl's father (Great Britain, Courts, 1840, p. 31). The court, thus, affirmed the girl's right to bring an action against the doctor for physical injury. Considering, that the practice to sue in tort irrespectively of an existence of a contract was still rare, in Donoghue, the reasonable question had arisen. Here, one should recall that it is not Donoghue herself, who paid for the bottle of the ginger beer but her friend who did. In other words, there was no contract between Donoghue and the caf owner but rather a contract between Donoghue's friend and the caf owner. Thus, the court had to decide, whether, given the absence of a contract between Donoghue and the caf owner, Donoghue could sue the owner for the violation of a duty of care.

The second issue had been intrinsically tied to the first one. Thus, if the answer for the first question was positive, the following question would arise: whether the caf owner owed a duty of care to Donoghue. However, if the answer for the first question was negative, such question would never arise. In fact, the first scenario took the place.

To sum up, the court considered two major questions:

  1. whether Donoghue had the right to sue
  2. whether the caf owner owed a duty of care to her.

Ratio Dicidendi

The issue presented before the court caused a split among Lords Justices. The two most frequently cited speeches are those of Lord Atkin, who spoke in support of Donoghue and of Lord Buckmaster, who spoke against her. These two opinions capture the essence of the debate on the issues.

Lord Atkin's reasoning is majorly grounded on moral considerations. The Justice recognises that it is difficult to find in the English authorities statements of general application defining the relations between parties that give rise to the duty (Donoghue v. Stevenson). Lord Atkin has made this statement in the context of the duty of care in negligent cases. However, the Justice cited Heaven v. Pender in an attempt to find a definition of general principles of liability arising out of breach of duty of care. He further pointed out that the concept of liability for negligence arises out of general public sentiment of moral wrongdoing for which the offender must pay (Donoghue v. Stevenson). Thus, one may observe that in his reasoning, Lord Atkin, indeed, heavily relied on the moral side of the case. At the same time, Lord Atkin made an important reservation: the injury arising out of the breach of moral principles does not necessarily give the rise to a legal action. The Justice specified that the law limits the range of complaints and remedies available (Donoghue v. Stevenson). However, Lord Atkin, found that in this particular case, a moral obligation can be transformed into a legal one. Thus, he wrote: The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes m law you must not injure your neighbour (Donoghue v. Stevenson). Lord Atkin further explained that in a legal context, a neighbour is a person, who is close to and directly affected by one's actions (Donoghue v. Stevenson). According to Lord Atkin, one should reasonably realise that his or her action may have an impact on close persons. The Justice revealed that he drawn this concept from Heaven v. Pender. In this case, Lord Esher pointed out that one man may owe a duty to another even though there is no contract between them. If one man is near to another or is near to the property of another a duty lies upon him not to do that which may cause a personal injury to that other or may injure his property (Lord Atkin, citing Heaven v. Pender).

Apart from moral principles, Lord Atkin also refers to the needs of society. The Justice pointed out that the doctrine, according to which the poisoned consumer has no remedy against the negligent manufacturer is an obvious defect of law. Lord Atkin's position towards the doctrine can be formulated as follows: the ordinary needs of civilized society' require removing the obvious defect of law. The Justice notes that the doctrine deprives a consumer from legal remedy against the negligent manufacture. One may observe that Lord Atkin's reasoning emphasises the danger of the upholding of the doctrine since it would cover not only food and drinks but many items used in households on everyday basis. The Justice further concludes that to deny a legal remedy to an injured person would be socially wrong.

To sum up, Lord Atkin's reasoning, indeed, lacks a reference to English authorities. The only case his argument is based is Heaven v. Pender. Lord Atkin himself recognised the lack of the authorities that would support his point. However, he relied on the other type of reasoning moral and social. Such an approach is a sign of judicial activism. Judicial activism as any other phenomenon entails positive as well as negative aspects. At the same time, it is reasonable to suggest that without legal activism, the law would still be trapped in archaic, out of date rules and principles. In other words, to some extent, legal activism makes the law more flexible and adequate to the reality of life.

While Lord Atkin stressed upon moral and social aspects, Lord Buckmaster relied on policy considerations. Thus, Lord Buckmaster raised a concerned that the decision in favour of Donoghue would bring many uncertainties as to the way trade should be carried out (Harpwood, 2008,p. 20). Lord Buckmaster considered a number of authorities, involving manufacturers and consumers and found no support for claims of Donoghue.The Justice agreed that in general, a manufacturer owes a duty of care to any person, who legally uses items manufactured by him. According to Lord Buckmaster, such principle should exist irrespectively of the existence of a contract between a manufacturer and a consumer. However, Lord Buckmaster points out that such principle should not be applicable to the cases, where inspection is difficult or impossible to introduce(Donoghue v. Stevenson). At this point an important explanation should be made. The point is that the bottle with a ginger beer was opaque, and thus, it was difficult, not to say impossible, to see the remains of a snail there. This fact is not cited in Lord Buckmaster's or Lord Atkin's opinions. However, Lord Buckmaster's reasoning gives a ground to state that such fact has been considered by Justices. In a word, Lord Buckmaster denied the existence of duty of care, in cases, where it is difficult or impossible to inspect the manufactured items. He wrote: [t]here can be no special duty attaching to the manufacture of food, apart from that implied by contract or imposed by statute (Donoghue v. Stevenson).

The significance of Lord Buckmaster's opinion is that although he disagrees on the point of duty of care, he, nevertheless, recognises the right of injured persons to obtain remedy against manufacturer not only in cases, covered by contracts, but also in non-contractual situations. One may observe that Lord Buckmaster's dissenting opinion is reasoned by two main aspects: 1) the absence of legal authorities supporting claims of Donoghue, and 2) policy concerns that decision in favour of Donoghue would put trade in an uncertain place.

The Donoghue case is often considered by authors dealing with legal reasoning issues in general. For instance, Head and Mann (2008, p. 41) exemplify the case as the one governed not only by logic but also by a common sense. In other words, the authors view the case as not narrowing the legal reasoning simply to the inductive reasoning logic, but covering wider moral principles (Head and Mann, 2008, p. 41). Other authors also emphasise that Donoghue was decided on moral rather than logical grounds. Thus, Levi ( 1962, p. 25) points out that Lord Atkin simply translated moral rule prescribing to love one's neighbour into a legal rule one should not injure his neighbour.

Furthermore, Montrose (1957, p. 591) explores the legal reasoning in Donoghue with a specific reference to materiality of facts. The author uses the case to prove his point that any one or more of the particular facts serves as a starting point for different theoretical rules (Montrose, 1957, p. 591). Montrose (1957, p. 591) points out that in Donoghue the judges did not make a reference to any particular type of harm: harmful drink, harmful thing for human consumption or harmful thing for personal use. The scholar emphasises that the judges, specifically Lord Atkin made generalisations, referring to any kind of harm. At the same time, Montrose (1957, p. 591), draws attention that such generalisation did not prevent judges to argue that Donoghue principle was applicable only to the cases involving the manufacture of food in Grant v. Australian Knitting Mills. From Montrose's discussion of the case, one may conclude that he finds different outcomes of the cases in materiality of facts. In particular, Montrose (1957, p. 591) points out that Lord Atkin in his judgment does not make any reference to the fact that the bottle of the ginger beer was opaque. However, Montrose, 1957 (p. 591) argues that this fact was, nevertheless, material, because judges considered it, even though not mentioning it in their reasoning. Montrose, 1957 (p. 591) specifies that reference to the opaqueness of the bottle was made in speeches in the discussion of law. For this reason, according to the author the fact should be regarded as material. The author further concludes that this fact became a reason for the limitation of the Donoghue doctrine to the cases involving consumers and manufacturers. Thus, Montrose attempts to prove his point that similar facts may result in different legal reasoning. Stone (1964, p. 269), as well as Montrose, considers Donoghue in the context of materiality of facts. He points out that although there was a range of facts in Donoghue, the later courts would apply Donoghue even if only some of the Donoghue facts were present. In other words, the later courts would impose liability under Donoghue even if not all Donoghue facts took place.


By a majority of three to two the House of Lords adopt the decision in Donoghue's favour. Lord Atkin expressed the majority view, while Lord Buckmaster expressed the minority one.

Rules of law

The Donoghue case brought the following important legal principles: 1) it made negligence a separate tort in its own right; 2) established a principle that a claim for negligence can exist irrespectively of whether there is a contract between an injured party and a manufacturer; 3) introduced a rule that the negligence claim will succeed if a claimant can prove the following elements: a duty of care owed to him or her, a breach of the duty of care, and damages resulting from the breach of duty of care; 4) instituted a principle, according to which a duty of care can be established on the ground of the neighbour principle, that is too say that manufacturer should maintain reasonable foresight of his actions; 5) enacting the specific rule that a manufacturer of drinks owes a duty of care to his consumers and this duty includes not to cause harm by negligently allowing foreign bodies to contaminate the drinks (Harpwood, 2008,p. 21). Thus, one may observe that Donoghue, in fact, determined the most important principles of modern tort law. Indeed, such notions as duty of care, breach of duty of care, damages became integral categories of tort law. It is important to bear in mind that the Donoghue principles have certain limits. In particular, these principles are not applicable to cases, involving shoddy or unmerchantable goods' (Harpwood, 2008, p. 21). The Donoghue doctrine can be applied only in cases, involving goods that can cause harm to health.

It is difficult to overestimate the legacy left by Donoghue. The principle of duty of care, established by the case, finds its application in relationships between manufacturers and customers, health professionals and patients. Although it is difficult to find any empirical evidence, it is still reasonable to state that principles embraced by this case made manufacturers more responsible, and thus, goods became safer for human health.

Related essays