Law usually emerges out of a simple, painful, human story – that is what makes law so compelling. Take the birth of consumer protections.

It all started in 1928, when a woman named May Donoghue and a friend sat down at the Wellmeadow Café in Paisely, Scotland.  Even though the Industrial Revolution had been surging for nearly 200 years, there were almost no rules about safety or cleanliness.  Back then, only people who had a contract with a manufacturer to make a product could sue for a defect in it, which excluded just about everyone.

It was in that environment that May Donoghue ordered a pear and ice cream soda. To go with Mrs. Donoghue’s ice cream soda, the café’s owner delivered a brown glass bottle of ginger beer he had bought from a sodamaker named David Stevenson. After Mrs Donoghue finished half of the drink, her friend emptied the last of the ginger beer into the tumbler of ice cream – along with the dead snail decomposing in the ginger beer now sloshing around in Mrs. Donoghue’s stomach. Mrs. Donoghue got really sick.

Mrs. Donoghue sued Stevenson, the guy who made the soda.  Stevenson won — Mrs. Donoghue hadn’t bought the beer from him. But, Mrs. Donoghue’s lawyer refused to give up. Fresh from losing a different lawsuit involving a dead mouse and a bottle of ginger beer (I have never been able to drink ginger beer because of this), the lawyer sued again. And this time he won, setting the table for all products regulation.

[quote]A manufacturer of products … with knowledge that the absence of reasonable care in the preparation or putting up of products will result in an injury to the consumer’s life or property, owes a duty to the consumer to take that reasonable care. Donoghue (or McAlister) v Stevenson, [1932] All ER Rep 1; [1932] AC 562; House of Lords[/quote]

This is just one of the fascinating stories that gave rise to laws that guide and protect us.  The parents of most laws are tragedy and lobbying (but that’s another story). The next time you’re at a Scottish café about to dig into an ice cream soda, give a little toast to May Donoghue, her upset stomach and that poor, dead snail.

(P.S. if anyone wants to argue that products reg started with a defective Buick, I invite you to comment.)


  • April 7, 2011 Reply

    John S-S

    It started with the crappy tires in McPherson. It’s just not as much fun as the disgusting ice cream soda.

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