Origin of Product Liability and Consumer Protection Law

A Mollusc from Paisley, Scotland achieved posthumous celebrity status when in 1928 it ended up in a bottle of ginger beer partly consumed by Ms. May Donoghue giving her a fright and ultimately gastroenteritis as her physician later diagnosed. Thus triggered the events that led to the founding of modern negligence and consumer protection law in Donoghue v. Stevenson [1932] AC 562.

It all started on 26 August 1928, when Donoghue and a friend met at the Wellmeadow Café in Paisley, Scotland. At Donoghue’s request, her friend ordered her a ginger beer and paid for it. The cafe had bought the product from a distributor who in turn had bought it from Stevenson, the manufacturer.

The ginger beer came in a dark bottle and the content was therefore not visible from outside. Donoghue drank part of the content. As her friend poured the rest of the ginger beer into the tumbler, the remainder of a decomposing snail dropped out into the tumbler. Donoghue subsequently complained of stomach ache and her physician diagnosed her with gastroenteritis and as having suffered from severe shock. Donoghue then sued Stevenson for negligence.

She was unsuccessful at trial since in those days, a duty of care was only owed to persons in contractual relations or where a manufacturer was making something dangerous, or acted fraudulently. The trial Judge thus held that as there was no contract between Ms. Donoghue and the Manufacturer (May’s friend having paid for the drink) , the latter could not be held liable to her in negligence.

Undaunted, Ms. Donoghue (buoyed by Walter Leechman, her determined Solicitor) appealed to the House of lords where she eventually won the case.

On 26th May 1932, Lord Atkin, ostensibly referring to the Christian principle of ‘loving thy neighbour’ said:

“The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law ‘You must not injure your neighbour’;

This means:

“You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour.”

While on the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’, he answered:

“Neighbours are persons who are reasonably foreseeable as being affected by your actions or omissions. A duty of care is not owed to the world at large; it is owed to your neighbors.”

Overall, the House of Lords held that as the purpose of a product is normally to be consumed, Manufacturers owe consumers a duty to take reasonable care to ensure that their products are safe for consumption (at least in cases where goods cannot be inspected between manufacturing and consumption). That therefore there need not be a contractual relationship before an end consumer can sue for negligence.

The pronouncement of Lord Atkin of Aberdovey established the modern law of negligence, covering all aspects of negligence claims from personal injury to professional negligence and significantly the development of product liability law.

Imran Oladapo Shitta-Bey

Imran Oladapo Shitta-Bey

A strong foundation in Jurisprudence, principles of English Common law, Doctrines of Equity, Legal Systems and Nigerian Customary law lends Imran to proficiency in Public Law Litigation (including Judicial Review of Administrative Action), Corporate Commercial Litigation, Personal Injury (including medical negligence, drug product liability) and Property Litigation. He also advises on Planning Law, Construction and Real Estate development contracts. His legal experience of over 26 years spans both the UK (as Foreign Lawyer) and Nigerian jurisdictions. See Firm's Profile
Imran Oladapo Shitta-Bey

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