7th July 2017

This Scottish case from the 1930s is the foundation of the modern law of negligence – the law that means if someone carelessly injures you then you can pursue a claim for compensation.

Mrs Donoghue was on holiday in the summer of 1928 in Paisley. In an ice cream parlour she got a bottle of ginger beer and when this was poured – out came ginger beer.

But out also came: a snail which had seen better days. A dead decomposed snail. An ex-snail. A snail that was more than just poorly.

She got admitted to hospital with gastro-enteritis and shock and sued David Stevenson the manufacturer of the ginger beer for £500 compensation and £50 costs. My inflation updater reveals that in those days £550 really was £550 (maybe £31,000 in today’s terms).

Optimistic.

The problem in 1928 was it was very hard to sue someone unless you had a contract. Mrs D didn’t have a contract with Mr S. She didn’t have a contract with Mr Minghella either who owned the ice cream parlour because Mrs D didn’t buy the ginger beer (or the snail): it was bought for her by a friend whose name unfortunately has not come down to us through the ages.

Mr Stevenson – or his legal team – pointed this out and said also Mrs D was putting it on.

Mrs D lost her case. She appealed. She lost. She appealed. She lost. That was it for the Scottish legal system.

Then the case went south to the House of Lords (now called the Supreme Court) the highest court in the UK.

The lead judge Lord Atkin said: “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 neighbour. Who …is my neighbour? The answer… – 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.”

And on that basis the Lords found for Mrs D. She never got any money though. Because the London judges sent the matter back north for Scottish judges to decide how much compensation. And she died before the figure was worked out. But her estate WAS paid out after her death – £200. That would be about £11,500 these days and actually more than you would get now.

A result for Mrs D; unlucky and hard to bear for Mr S. And as for the snail – it was long past caring and is just a footnote in legal history. (Except snails don’t have feet).


By Adrian Dalton, Partner and Head of the Personal Injury Department