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

It was just under a century ago that May Donoghue took a train to Paisley to enjoy an ice cream float with a friend. What she found in her beverage that Sunday evening changed the world.

Bought from Wellmeadow Cafe, ginger beer from a dark brown Stevenson bottle was poured across ice cream. A treat to mark the Glasgow Trades Holiday.

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

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The Scotswoman who changed the law after finding a snail in her ginger beer

An impoverished shop assistant and single mum-of-three, May instructed local solicitor and city councillor Walter Leechman.

But who were they to raise an action against, the cafe owner? He could not have known the snail was rotting in that opaque bottle.

The friend? She simply bought a beverage.

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

May Donoghue's 'tenacious' litigation against the firm she believed responsible for a rotten snail in her ginger beer is renowned the world over. (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 the modern law of negligence around the world.

On Thursday, to mark 90 years since the landmark ruling, 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 alongside a justice from the Supreme Court of Canada, the President of the Caribbean Court of Justice and the Chief Justice of New Zealand.

May Donoghue, a shop assistant and single mum to three children, made legal history after reportedly finding the creature in her drink in 1928.

Michael Clancy, the Law Society of Scotland’s Director of Law Reform, said: “What changed dramatically at that point, 90 years ago, was the law of consumer protection.

“Lord Atkin delivered his judgement and the old way of looking at the consumer and the manufacturer was abolished.

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

Lord Atkin articulated the ‘neighbour principle’: you must not injure your neighbour and, in law, your neighbour is any person so directly affected by your actions that you ought to consider them.

Donoghue v Stevenson, a negligence case which changed the world, is memorialised in Paisley. Lairich Rig / The "snail in the bottle" case.

“Who is a manufacturer manufacturing for? The consumer. That’s quite obvious.

“But the articulation of the neighbour principle from the Donoghue case is, when you extrapolate it, why manufacturers must take care that computers don’t go on fire, gas cookers don’t explode, our motor cars don’t down break down unexpectedly when travelling at high speed.

“This makes our lives safer. It gives us confidence.”

Mr Clancy said the timing was ripe for Donoghue v Stevenson to redirect legal thinking on the duty of care: mass production was changing people’s lives and the law had to ‘catch up’.

The position of the House of Lords and Privy Council at the ‘apex’ of the legal system of all the colonies meant that when the court ruled in favour of May Donoghue, it set a precedent across the largest empire in history.

Even today, Donoghue v Stevenson is the key precedent in negligence and duty of care disputes.

Ms Donoghue was enjoying a drink at Paisley’s Wellmeadow Cafe when a decomposing snail fell out of the bottle. Ms Donoghue reportedly suffered shock and later an upset stomach.

Donoghue v Stevenson in 2022 and beyond

John Kleefeld, a law professor from the University of New Brunswick in Canada, is researching the global impact of Donoghue and speaking at Thursday’s conference.

He said: “Although the case was about a single snail in a single bottled beverage, it has been described as the forerunner of modern consumer law throughout the Commonwealth of Nations.

"The case itself suggested that all manufacturers of "articles of common household use” should owe a duty of care to the ultimate consumer, and that has proved to be so.

Professor Kleefeld has so far collected nearly 3,000 cases from 36 countries citing or referencing the case.

He continued: "In the last few months alone, Donoghue’s case has been cited by courts in the UK, Australia, Canada, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Pacific Islands.

“So while we may not yet be able to claim that the case of the mollusc in the bottle is really immortal, we can truly say that it is enjoying a long and adventurous life.”

Donoghue v Stevenson – an Irish perspective

Ursula Connolly – a lecturer in law, National University of Ireland, Galway – joins Professor Kleefeld speaking at the ‘Immortal Snail’ Donoghue v Stevenson 90th Anniversary Conference this week.

She said: “The influence of the snail in the ginger beer case was enormous in all the common law countries.

"It represented a move away from dealing with cases on a case by case basis, based on accepted categories of duty and breach, and a move towards establishing general principles that could be applied to all situations.

"In Ireland, all students of law in their first year will study Donoghue v Stevenson, in particular, the famous judgement of Lord Atkin

"The facts as reported are relatable and memorable; who could not imagine sitting in a cafe with a drink, and who could not be disgusted at the thought of the remnants of a decomposed snail issuing forth from a drink you were consuming only seconds before.

"The legal significance of the case may in fact be forgotten by some students, but the facts rarely are.”

Donoghue v Stevenson – a Nigerian perspective

This week’s event brings together legal experts from across the world, speaking both in person and remotely across a number of time zones.

Funke Adekoya heads an arbitration practice group in Lagos in Nigeria.

She said: “The story of the snail in a bottle is one that still enthrals law students in Nigeria even today.

"It is one of the first cases that one deals with when learning about the tort of negligence, the duty of care, and to whom it is owed.

"Nigerian law includes ‘Received English law’, which refers to the rules of law and legal principles that have their roots or origin in England but were adopted into Nigerian legal system to form part of Nigerian laws.

“The result of “received English law” being part of Nigerian law is that Mrs Donoghue and her snail in the bottle, a case which started in Scotland and ended in the House of Lords, both live on as part of Nigerian tort law.”

– – –

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

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

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