Donoghue v Stevenson

Donoghue v Stevenson

[1932] AC 562

Donoghue v Stevenson is a landmark decision in English tort law by the House of Lords. It laid the foundation for the modern law of negligence by establishing the duty of care as a separate and general principle. Donoghue is foundational because it began the transition from many different situation-specific duties of care to a general duty of care. Over time, after Donoghue, a general presumption of liability arose when the defendant's negligent positive act caused injury to the victim or damage to the victim's property.


Mrs Donoghue's friend bought her a bottle of ginger beer and ice cream at a cafe. The bottle was opaque so the contents could not be seen. Mrs Donoghue drank part of the ginger beer and then poured the rest onto the ice cream at which point a decomposed snail came out of the bottle. Mrs Donoghue was later admitted to hospital with severe gastroenteritis.

Mrs Donoghue argued that the manufacturer, David Stevenson, owed her a duty of care to ensure that the drink did not contain harmful substances. Moreover, Mrs Donoghue argued that Stevenson had breached that duty.


Whether there is a general duty to not negligently injure someone, where there is no contract between the parties.

Injuries resulting from defective products were usually claimed through the contract of sale; moreover, the existing disparate duties of care were also mainly from circumstances with a contractual context. However, in this case, there was no contract between Mrs Donoghue and David Stevenson for two reasons. First, her friend had bought the drink; second, the contract was with the cafe, not the manufacturer.


The House of Lords found in favour of Mrs Donoghue finding a duty of care despite the lack of contractual relationship, thus establishing the modern law of negligence. The leading judgment was delivered by Lord Atkin in a 3-2 majority.


The decision is multifaceted in its effect — first, it recognised negligence as a distinct and general tort. Lord Atkin wrote:

In English law there must be, and is, some general conception of relations giving rise to a duty of care, of which the particular cases found in the books are but instances.

Lord Atkin also wrote that,

The categories of negligence are never closed.

Second, due to the abstraction of negligence, the decision removed the need to find a contractual relationship when establishing a duty of care. Third, the decision established that manufacturers owe a duty of care to the ultimate intended consumer.

Finally, Lord Atkin set out his neighbour principle, an early attempt at the red herring of a general test for the existence of a duty of care in negligence. The test is that one must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions that one can reasonably foresee would likely injure one's neighbour. Neighbours are those so closely and directly affected by one's action that one should reasonably contemplate the effect of one's action on them.

Caparo Industries v Dickman contains the next attempt at a general test for the existence of a duty of care.