The Snail in the Ginger Beer

Permit me, if I may, to set the scene for you. It’s a lovely hot summer’s day and you decide to stop off at a hostelry for a nice cold drink. Something lengthy with lots of ice to cool you down while you sit in the sun. The innkeeper brings you a glass containing ice, and a bottle of your chosen beverage. He pops the top and pours the drink… and floating in the top is a slug. Both you and the innkeeper are horrified. Rather than drink up, you rather unsurprisingly decide to start legal proceedings. But whom do you sue?

It’s rather hard to believe these days, but prior to the case of Donoghue vs. Stevenson in 1932, there was no clear cut rule that said the producers of goods had a general duty of care to the consumers of their goods that they are fit for consumption. By being heard in the House of Lords, the decision entered English law as well as Scots law, and is still considered good law today.

But what a story! Mrs Donoghue visited a café in Paisley, Scotland, with her friend, where they had snacks. She ordered a bottle of ginger beer, which arrived – with a glass – in an unopened opaque bottle, as was usual at the time. The café owner opened the bottle and poured some into a glass, which Mrs Donoghue partly drank before feeling unwell. On closer investigation, she claimed to have discovered a dead snail in the bottom of the bottle. It was apparent that the café owner was unaware of the existence of the snail, and so Mrs Donoghue issued a claim against Mr Stevenson, the manufacturer of the ginger beer who, in turn, denied any responsibility for Mrs Donoghue’s ill health whatsoever.

The case was heard in the Scottish Court of Sessions, and led to appeal after appeal before Mrs Donoghue finally won the right to be heard by the House of Lords, at that time still the highest Court in the country. The Law Lords who heard the appeal held that Mr Stevenson did owe Mrs Donoghue a duty of care and was negligent in not ensuring that his products were fit for consumption; consequently, he owed her damages. Mr Stevenson sadly died not long after this ruling and the executors of his estate settled the case with Mrs Donoghue out of court.

But all did not go well with the other people involved in this matter. Mrs Donoghue herself died of a heart attack in 1958, whilst resident in a mental hospital; Mr Minghella, the owner of the café where the fateful drink was taken, closed the café in 1931 and became a labourer. He died in 1970. Mr Stevenson’s factory was sold off by his family in the mid-1950s and was demolished a few years later.

It may very well be as a result of this case that many drinks are now in clear, translucent or only semi-opaque bottles (although drinks purchased in cans are clearly the exception that proves the rule); it is the manufacturers trying to ensure that there is nothing in their product that shouldn’t be – at least, when it left the factory. That said, it’s an excellent reason never to drink straight from a can. You never know what you might be sharing your lemonade with.

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