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Donoghue v. Stevenson – Case Brief

Donoghue v. Stevenson

Donoghue v. Stevenson a Scottish dispute, is a famous case in English law that was instrumental in shaping the law of tort and introduced the doctrine of negligence. It is a landmark case in tort law. The wider importance of the case is that it established the general principle of the duty of care concept in law. The test was formulated by Lord Atkin and it is generally referred to as the “neighbour test” or “neighbour principle”.

Donoghue v. Stevenson, also known as the “Paisley snail case,” is a landmark legal case that was heard in the House of Lords in 1932 and is considered a key case in the development of the law of negligence in the United Kingdom.


Negligence in layman’s terms means carelessness or absence of duty of care. However, the legal meaning of the term negligence means ‘absence of reasonable duty of care.’ Legally, negligence is of two types i.e. civil and criminal; the differentiating factor between the two is the gravity of absence of care and mens rea. The concept of ‘reasonability’ of the duty of care has been laid down by the House of Lords in 1932 in the case of Donoghue v. Stevenson.

This case became the foundation for the principle of negligence and broadened the applicability of the same so that a large number of defaulters can be made answerable for negligence that used to evade their liability by the Defence of privity of contract principle. Furthermore, the issues pertaining to extent of ‘reasonable duty of care’ were adjudicated in the said case by passing a reference to ‘neighbouring principle of law‘ i.e. reasonable foreseeability of persons who might be affected directly or indirectly by the act of defaulter and hence the duty of care shall be extended to them. This landmark case has been discussed further.

Jurisdiction: House of Lords

Date of decision26 May 1932

Citation: [1932] UKHL 100, [1932] SC (HL) 31, [1932] AC 562

BenchLord Buckmaster, Lord Atkin, Lord Tomlin, Lord Thankerton, Lord Macmillan


1. Whether the defendant owed any duty of care to the plaintiff in absence of contract?

2. Whether the defendant can be sued for the wrong of negligence as there was no privity of contract between manufacturer and consumer?

Facts of the case

In this case, the plaintiff purchased a bottle of ginger beer from a retailer, some of the contents were poured into her tumbler, and she noticed a decomposed snail floating in the beer. She complained of having suffered gastro-intestitis because of the consumption of the contaminated beer which was contained in the opaque bottle thus rendering it incapable of being externally seen or inspected. She sued the manufacturer for damages. The defendants pleaded that they did not owe any duty of care as there was no privity of contract between the two.


The House of Lords in the ratio of 3:2 held that pre-existing contractual relationship is not required by virtue of tort being independent of contract; hence defendant can be sued for negligence. Furthermore, the manufacturer owed a duty of care to the consumer i.e. plaintiff in the present case as she was the ultimate consumer and therefore it is reasonably foreseeable that the consumer is directly affected by the acts of the manufacturer, hence the duty of care observed towards consumer and defendant was held liable for negligence and ordered to pay damages to the plaintiff as a compensation for the harm caused.


The case of Donoghue v. Stevenson is a classic example of the transformation of logical reasoning into legal reasoning. It is pertinent to note that this case is the locus classicus whenever duty of care and evolution of the principle of negligence will be explained or cited.

The prevailing law pertaining to negligence before the advent of the present case was that in absence of a contractual relationship between manufacturer and consumer or the manufacturer was aware that the product is non-dangerous; he did not owe any duty of care towards the consumer. However, after the present 1932 case, the House of Lords amplified the doctrine of the duty of care so that manufacturers cannot evade the wrong based on the absence of a contractual relationship.

The House of Lords laid down the following propositions of law which laid the foundation of the present law on negligence.

1. Negligence is a distinct and separate tort.

2. The pre-existing contractual relationship is not required for establishing the duty of care.

3. Manufacturers owe a duty of care to consumers who intend to use their products.

4. The burden of proof regarding negligence will be on the injured party.

The Lord Atkin also made reference to the neighbouring principle which was developed in further cases. He stated the principle as follows “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 to have them in [mind] when I am [considering these] acts or omissions.” In other words, the manufacturer should foresee that the consumer will be the ultimate person who will be using the product as the manufacturer intends no interference by distributors and retailers, therefore ultimate consumer will be the person who will be directly affected by the act of the manufacturer hence he owes a duty of care of them.

The rationale behind the majority’s decision was the protection of health and interest of the public through reasonable care which is intended by Judges to be put at the highest pedestal. The sole intention of the manufacturer when he manufactures commodities for human consumption is that it shall be consumed and by virtue of the said fact, he establishes a relationship with his potential consumers and hence owes a duty of care to them. The purpose of this decision was to make reckless manufacturers liable for their dangerously defective products which cause personal injury to consumers.

The above stated was the majority’s opinion, however, the dissenting opinion must not be overlooked. Lord Buckmaster and Tomlin gave the dissenting judgment; it was based on the traditional values of the Common Law System.

The minority view was similar to pre-existing precedents. According to Lord Buckmaster, a third party cannot expect the duty of care as being outside of the contract. Furthermore, he said if the majority view is considered then it would defeat the purpose of distinction list between dangerous and non-dangerous things. The prior rule was that the manufacturer owed a duty of care to the consumer in case of dangerous things and not otherwise. Lord Buckmaster implied in a crux that it would be socially and economically impossible to entertain claims from such a wide group of people. Lord Tomlin expressed his view on the basis of Lord Buckmaster’s speech, he said the duty of care is a special duty and it is logically impossible to impose the same on all kinds of manufacturers; it should be imposed in cases of hazardous things.

After analysing two contradictory views it could be concluded that the law of negligence is based upon the rule of ‘proximity’ or ‘foreseeability’. The majority opinion is just, fair and reasonable as the law should be and also it enlarged the scope of the duty of care which

includes not only compensatory claims but also includes personal injury claims. The ratio decidendii of Donoghue v. Stevenson forms the basis of the modern day principle of negligence.

Read Also: Reg Vs. Govinda

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