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Negligence and the duty of care: A famous case

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The case of Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562, commonly known as the Paisley Snail case, lead to the creation of the general tort of negligence. May Donoghue, a shop assistant from Scotland, became ill when she found a slug in a bottle of ginger beer that she had been drinking, ordered for her by a friend in a café.

Donoghue could not sue the café owner in contract as she had not bought the drink herself. A Glasgow lawyer suggested that Donoghue sue the maker of the ginger beer for negligence, something that had never been tried before. The lawyer argued that David Stevenson, a soft drink maker from Paisley, owed a duty of care to people who consumed his product.

The case went to the House of Lords, then the highest civil court in the UK (the judicial role of the House of Lords was replaced by the Supreme Court in 2010). The leading judgment was delivered on 26 May 1932 by Lord Atkin, who said “…the rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes, in law, you must not injure your neighbour”. He further said that product makers must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which they can reasonably imagine would be likely to injure the consumer. Ms Donoghue was awarded £200 in compensation, equal to about €8,400 today.

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