Thursday, 1 July 2010

English Legal Cases Made Easy Episode 1 - A Snail's Tail - In which a nice day out turns into a gruesome banquet of decomposing gastropods

Once upon a time and a very long time ago, a woman went for a nice day out. Feeling a little thirsty, she and her companion stopped for some refreshments. Mrs Donoghue (for that was her name) asked her friend to order an iced drink and it duly arrived in an opaque bottle. The waiter poured some of the ginger beer into a tumbler containing ice-cream and Mrs Donoghue proceeded to drink it. Her friend then poured the rest of the ginger beer into the tumbler and as she did so, a decomposing snail popped out. How pleasant!

Poor Mrs Donoghue then suffered gastroenteritis and nervous shock (ladies in the '20's were not quite as robust as they are now) and, quite rightly, wanted some compensation which, eventually, she got. What was the problem, you might ask yourself looking back from the 21st Century? If somebody injures you then you are entitled to compensation. Well, at that time, the problem was that firstly Mrs Donoghue had not actually purchased the ginger beer - her friend had bought it for her and her friend had not been injured, so there was no contractual relationship between Mrs D and the café owner. There was also no possibility of suing the manufacturer of the drink as ginger beer is not inherently a dangerous product (although it can be a little fiery!) and there was no fraud as it was what it was supposed to be.

Nevertheless, Mrs Donoghue found a gallant solicitor who already had experience of trying to sue the makers of ginger beer over a case of a decomposing mouse in his drink but had failed. Clearly adventurous to the core, the solicitor gave Mrs Donoghue all he had in terms of legal bulldogism! The case ended up in the highest court in the UK, the House of Lords, in an effort to establish Mrs Donoghue's right to pursue the manufacturer of the gastropodous beverage and it was there that the law was changed and the "duty of care" was established. That is, that we all have a duty not to injure anyone who could reasonably be expected to be injured by our actions. Quite often it is referred to as either the "Atkin" principle (after the judge who said it) or the "neighbour" principle. For your entertainment, I have set it out below:

"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 that are called in question." (Lord Atkin) Donoghue (or M'Alister) v Stevenson ([1932] AC 562 1932 SC(HL) 31 [1932] All ER Rep 1)

Ultimately, Mrs Donoghue got her compensation. She had originally asked for £500 but settled, out of court, with the executors of Mr Stevenson's estate (he had died in the meantime - one hopes not from drinking his own pop!) for £200.

Tina Morgan