In 1932, the House of Lords made a ruling involving a rotting snail carcase found in a ginger beer bottle. That ruling is a landmark for lawyers worldwide, establishing a principle that is applied wherever a person suffers loss or injury.
The action was brought by Mary Donoghue after she went to a café in the Scottish town of Paisley, where her friend bought her a ginger beer. After drinking some of the ginger beer, Mrs Donoghue topped up her glass when, to her horror, a decomposing snail fell from the bottle. Because Mrs Donoghue had not bought the drink she could not sue the café owner, Mr Murghella, but her Glasgow lawyer suggested she sue the drink manufacturer, David Stevenson, arguing that he had a duty of care to those consuming the product, even if they had not bought it.
Before the case could go to trial, it had to be determined if such an action could be brought. The original judgement was that it could, but the Court of Appeal overturned this. So the case found its way to the House of Lords where, by a 3:2 majority, the Law Lords agreed a duty of care was owed under the ‘neighbour principle’ – i.e. a person so closely and directly affected by an act that one ought reasonably to consider them. However, Stevenson died before the case could be heard and his executors settled out of court for £200 – worth over £7000 today.
A bench and a plaque at the corner of Well St and Lady Lane in Paisley commemorate the case. But since the case itself was never heard, the identity of the snail, even its existence, was never established. Surely there are more substantial molluscs to vie for the title of a mollusc that changed history? If you know of one, please let us know.