It is a pleasant Sunday evening in 1928. Two women sit soaking up the last of the sun at Wellmeadow Café in Paisley, Scotland, unaware that they are about to spark one of the biggest changes to British civil law in the 20th century.
May Donoghue, a shop assistant from Glasgow, orders a pear and a ginger beer ‘float’ – a treat paid for by her friend. She sips the fizzy drink straight from the dark glass bottle, consuming most of the cool liquid before pouring just the right amount into her glass.
But the surprise lurking at the bottom of the bottle turns her stomach – and British law – upside down. The decomposed remains of a common snail bob in the glass, having made their escape from the ginger beer now lining Ms Donohue’s innards.
The horrified woman visits a doctor, who diagnoses her with gastroenteritis and shock.
Now affectionately nicknamed the “Snail in the Bottle” case, this grisly incident transformed how the law defines liability in negligence cases.
In 1928, common law only acknowledged that a duty of care was owed to victims harmed by the negligent acts of others in specific and limited circumstances.
This was restricted to situations where a contract existed between the parties, where a manufacturer was making something dangerous, or where they were committing a fraudulent act.
As the law stood, Mrs Donoghue could not take any legal action over the snail in her drink. Because she had not bought the drink herself, she had not entered into a contract with the café owner, and there was no direct contract between the women and the ginger beer manufacturer.
Enter Walter Leechman.
A dogged and determined solicitor, Leechman was familiar with cases involving unpleasant intruders in drinks. A previous case had seen the solicitor represent a complainant who alleged they had found a dead mouse in a bottle of ginger beer.
Although he lost that particular case, Leechman was determined to inspire change in negligence case law, and issued May Donoghue’s writ against the manufacturer of the ginger beer, David Stevenson.
The case centred on the argument that Stevenson should have been protecting customers by carrying out inspections and enforcing suitable regulations. If it was impossible for the customer to inspect the product before buying it – as was the case with the opaque bottle of ginger beer – then the manufacturer should be liable for any damage caused.
After being heard in the Scottish courts, the case went to appeal at the highest court in the land. It was heard in the House of Lords on 10th December 1931, three years after the discovery of the snail in the bottle.
Lord Atkin of Aberdovey, one of the best known judges of the century, was a panel member at the appeal.
On 26th May 1932, Lord Atkin found in favour of May Donoghue, and established that Stevenson was responsible for the integrity of his product. As a result, the House of Lords ruled that negligence was a tort. With the ruling, you could now take civil action against a manufacturer if you found a snail in one of their ginger beers, regardless of whether contractual arrangements were in place. If it was proven that the manufacturer’s negligence led to injury or loss of property, then the person affected was entitled to compensation.
Lord Atkin based his judgment on the parable of the Good Samaritan, using the principle of “love thy neighbor” to carve out a new approach to negligence cases. He delivered the judgement in a speech, which is quoted to this day in court.
He said: “The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law ‘You must not injure your neighbour. 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 so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.”
Among other areas, the “love thy neighbor” principle covers personal injury, product liability, professional negligence on the part of doctors, mechanics, and anyone else providing a service.
The judgement empowered consumers, and has formed the basis for thousands of lawsuits over the past 90 years. Critics say it has given birth to a culture of compensation and petty claims, but there is no denying that it has also forced people to take responsibility for their negligent actions.
The results of this entertaining case have had a serious ripple effect on law as we know it in the United Kingdom; the impact of the rogue snail with a taste for ginger beer continues to define the way we handle civil cases.
Bethany is a freelance journalist with a passion for current affairs. She creates cross-media content for breaking news sites, food and travel publications, and health blogs, and likes a good cup of tea while she writes.