The Origins of Duty, Part II

In the 1830s, when the court decided Vaughan v. Menlove, everyday life was not much different than it had been in the 1630s, especially in the rural English countryside. But a hundred years later, the world was a lot different. Inventions like the car and telephone connected people like never before, radio and cinema ushered in a new era of mass communication, and massive industrialization changed the way the economy worked. Perhaps even more importantly for the issues involved in Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932), many people were still traumatized over the events of World War I, because millions of people – combatants and noncombatants alike – had been directly or indirectly killed with little or no regard to their welfare.

Facts and Procedural History

While at a café in Scotland, Ms. Donoghue’s friend bought her a bottle of ginger beer, which she proceeded to pour over a bowl of ice cream. As she emptied the container, a dead and partially decomposed snail floated out of the bottle. “[A]s a result of the nauseating sight of the snail in such circumstances,” the court wrote, “the appellant suffered from shock and severe gastro-enteritis.”

To obtain damages, Ms. Donoghue would have normally sued under breach of contract. But since she did not actually buy the beer, that avenue was unavailable. So, she came up with an idea that was unheard of at the time: Mr. Stevenson, the beer bottler, had a duty “to provide a system of working his business which would not allow snails to get into his ginger-beer bottles [and] provide an efficient system of inspection of the bottles before the ginger-beer was filled into them.”

A lower court dismissed Ms. Donoghue’s claim, largely on the basis that there was a “long line of authority opposed to the appellant’s contention.”

Decision and Application

In entering judgment for Ms. Donoghue, Lord Atkin essentially ruled that times had changed since the various courts considered previous cases, and that a new rule was in order. So, he developed the “neighbor rule:”

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 neighbor, [or] 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.

The neighbor rule, which also introduced the concept of foreseeability, later became the duty of reasonable care in English and American law.

If you or a loved one was hurt or killed because of someone else’s negligence, contact an experienced Lake Charles personal injury attorney from Hoffoss Devall for a free consultation. Home and hospital appointments are available.