It is generally considered that the single most significant precedent for the law as it today relates to product liability claims was set in 1932 in the now famous case of Donoghue v. Stevenson.
During this case the bulk of the legal principles which relate to product liability law as it still stands were laid down in a landmark legal ruling.
The grievance of the product liability claimant in Donoghue v. Stevenson, Mrs Mary Donghue, arose out of an incident where after buying a bottle of ginger beer from a Cafe and drinking most of the contents she found that the bottom of the bottle contained the decomposing remains of a snail.
What made her product liability claim so historically significant was that she sought compensation from the manufacturer of the ginger beer (Stevenson), with whom she had no explicit contract.
Her product liability claim outlined how she felt that she was owed personal injury compensation for both the nervous shock she had suffered as a result of the defect and the gastro-enteritis she claimed to have developed from drinking it.
Though, at a trial court, Mrs Donoghue was initially given the go-ahead to make her product liability claim, an appeal judge later overturned this decision. On the advice of her personal injury solicitor, the claimant then decided to take her product liability claim to House of Lords.
It was there that Donoghue's personal injury solicitor successfully argued his client's case and won the single most important ruling to date in British product liability law.
Lord Atkin's dicta (ruling) still forms the basis of UK product liability law today:
"The complainant has to show that he has been injured by the breach of duty owed to him in the circumstances by the defendant to take reasonable care to avoid such injury."
The key legal principle decided by the Atkin in the case was the one of duty of care, or the 'neighbour principle'.
His definition of neighbour is absolutely crucial to understanding the complexities of this 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. ... The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law you must not injure your neighbour; and the lawyer's question: Who is my neighbour? receives a restricted reply. You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who, then, in law, is my neighbour? The answer seems to be persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as long as so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions that are called in question."
With that decision, it became inscribed in UK law that manufacturers, not only those businesses the consumer has an explicit contract with, had a liability to all UK consumers under the terms of the neighbour principle.'
Just as thousands of UK consumers would go on to do afterwards, Mrs Mary Donoghue successfully won personal injury compensation from the manufacturer of the ginger beer.
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