Author: Diane Parker
June 15th will be the UK’s 3rd annual National Beer Day (where do they think of these things?)
And how can a lawyer write a blog about it?
A quick look on the official “Beer Day Britain” website tells us that June 15th was chosen as it is the anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta; possibly the foundation stone for the development of the law and legal systems, not just in the UK but around the world where “common law” systems exist and have evolved. The other point of interest is that the Magna Carta mentions beer or more specifically “ale” hence National Beer Day!
I know very little about the Magna Carta beyond the school joke “Where was the Magna Carta signed? At the bottom!” but I do know a little bit about another beer that was to play a crucial role in the development of our modern law of tort, although not of the alcoholic variety!
In 1928 Mrs Donoghue was enjoying a day out with a friend. Her friend bought a bottle of ginger beer which they intended to share. The friend poured some of the ginger beer into Mrs Donoghue’s glass and she drank some. As the second glass was being poured “a snail, which had been, unknown to the pursuer [Mrs Donaghue], her friend or Mr Minchella [the café owner], in the bottle and was in a state of decomposition, floated out of the said bottle.”
The case report of the Court of Session goes on to say: “In consequence of the nauseating sight of the snail in said circumstances, and of the noxious condition of the said snail, tainted ginger beer consumed by her, the pursuer sustained the shock and illness hereinafter condescended upon.”
So, having sustained “shock and illness” what was Mrs Donoghue to do? It wasn’t the café owner’s fault, he’d bought the sealed, dark glass bottle from the manufacturers. Futhermore, Mrs Donoghue hadn’t bought the ginger beer herself, so there was no direct contractual link between her and the manufacturer.
In a case that went to the House of Lords (then the highest court in the land) the principles of the modern law of negligence were laid down.
Lord Atkin established the neighbours principle along with “a duty of care” to ensure that we all have a responsibility to “take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably forsee would be likely to injure your neighbour.”
In Mrs Donoghue’s case that meant that the manufacturer, Mr Stephenson had a responsibility to ensure that his ginger beer was manufactured and stored in conditions where reasonable steps had been taken to prevent snails (and other wee beasties) falling in and drowning and then decomposing.
This was not an isolated incident. Mrs Donoghue’s solicitor had run cases like this before, involving dead mice and it was clear that something needed to be done to improve the conditions in which these drinks were being manufactured.
Nowadays, Mrs Donoghue would be protected by statute, and there are a number of areas where statute (written or parliament-made law as opposed to common or judge made law) either replaces or enhances the common law of negligence, but most notably, because they’re the biggest category of personal injury claims. Nearly all road traffic accidents are governed solely by the common law of negligence – other road users are my “neighbour” and I have a duty “to take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which I can reasonably forsee would be likely to injure my neighbour.”
So, if you’ve been injured in an accident, however bizarre the circumstances, we may be able to help.