Donoghue v Stevenson: 90 years since a snail in ginger beer and a woman in Paisley changed the legal world

Purchased from the Wellmeadow Cafe, ginger beer from a dark brown Stevenson bottle was poured over ice cream. A treat to mark the Glasgow Trades holiday.

Then a decomposed snail floated out of the bottle. Sick at sight, May suffered from gastroenteritis and shock.

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The Scottish woman who changed the law after she found a snail in her ginger beer

A poor salesman and single mother of three, May asked local lawyer and councilor Walter Leechman.

But who were they to file a complaint against the café owner? He couldn’t know that the snail was rotting in that opaque bottle.

The friend? She just bought a drink.

Or the manufacturer? May, who hadn’t purchased the drink herself, had no contract with Stevenson.

May Donoghue’s “tenacious” lawsuit against the company she believed responsible for a rotten snail in her ginger beer is known around the world. (Image credit: Lairich Rig / The ‘Snail in the Bottle’ case)

The case went all the way to the House of Lords and became the foundation of modern negligence law around the world.

On Thursday, to mark 90 years since the landmark decision, the Law Society of Scotland is hosting a conference to commemorate the Donoghue case.

Speakers include the most senior judges from Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales, as well as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the President of the Caribbean Court of Justice and the Chief Justice of New Zealand.

May Donoghue, saleswoman and single mother of three, made legal history after finding the creature in her drink in 1928.

Michael Clancy, director of law reform at the Law Society of Scotland, said: “What changed dramatically at that time, 90 years ago, was consumer protection law.

“Lord Atkin has passed judgment and the old view of the consumer and the manufacturer has been abolished.

“One of the problems with consumers in the early 20th century was that there was no contractual relationship with the manufacturer – if something was wrong or harmful about a product, there was no had no recourse.”

Lord Atkin stated the “neighbor principle”: you must not hurt your neighbor and, in law, your neighbor is anyone so directly affected by your actions that you must take them into account.

Donoghue v Stevenson, a world-changing neglect case, is commemorated in Paisley. Lairich Rig / The “Snail in the Bottle” Case.

“Who does a manufacturer manufacture for? The consumer. It’s pretty obvious.

“But the articulation of the neighbor principle from the Donoghue case is, when you extrapolate it, why manufacturers have to be careful that computers don’t ignite, gas stoves don’t explode, our motor cars do not break down unexpectedly during high-speed travel.

“It makes our lives safer. It gives us confidence. »

Mr Clancy said the time was right for Donoghue v Stevenson to reorient legal thinking on duty of care: mass production was changing people’s lives and the law needed to “catch up”.

The position of the House of Lords and the Privy Council at the “top” of the legal system of all the colonies meant that when the court ruled in favor of May Donoghue, it set a precedent in the greatest empire in history.

This week, legal experts will examine the legacy of the ‘immortal snail’ and determine whether the Donoghue case was the House of Lords’ finest hour.

Ms Donoghue was having a drink at the Wellmeadow Cafe in Paisley when a rotting snail fell out of the bottle. Ms Donoghue reportedly suffered shock and later stomach pain.

So the next time you feel safe as a consumer, in your car or in front of a computer or even in a coffee shop, why not raise a glass of ginger beer to the tenacious May Donoghue.

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