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Written by Peter Carter

February 14, 2013

Today is one of fond remembrance for the citizens of Brisbane’s northern bayside of their favourite adopted sons, the Bee Gees, in whose honour a bronze sculpture will be unveiled this afternoon.
A less-regailed, but equally illustrious Redcliffe alumni was James Atkin, born there in November 1867 and who later fathered the modern law of negligence in his celebrated 1932 court ruling in the landmark “snail in the bottle” lawsuit, which has ramifications for industry and consumers up to this day.

Lord Atkin as he was later to become, articulated his famous “neighbour principle” – “treat others as you expect to be treated yourself” – in the legendary House of Lords case of Donoghue v Stevenson. The lawsuit was the product of battler May Donoghue having become violently ill after consuming what was thought to be a snail that emerged from a bottle of ginger beer served in a Paisley (Scotland) café, on a Sunday afternoon in August 1928.

Having no legal remedy as against the cafe proprietor – her companion had placed the cafe order and thus only he had traditional standing to sue over the adulterated “ice cream floater” – she happened to consult one of the few lawyers with the requisite determination and knowledge to successfully pursue her expenses and loss of income the injury caused.

Glasgow lawyer Walter Leechman, who had earlier failures in “bottle cases” including that of a decomposed mouse, set course on a strategy against the soft drink manufacturer that would ultimately lead to the highest court of the Empire.

Providing his services on what would today be called a “no win no fee” basis, Leechman unexpectedly succeeded at trial having proved the grossly unsanitary conditions under which Stevenson’s beverages were bottled.

The Scottish Court of Appeal reversed this decision prompting, as a last resort, a petition the House of Lords in London to review the case for Leechman’s “pauper” client: “Not more than £5 in the world, does she possess,” read the papers.

Their revolutionary contention was simple – one that for modern communities goes without saying – that Stevenson owed a duty to take reasonable care in manufacturing a product that was intended for human consumption.

The orbits of Atkin, Leachman and Donoghue coincided briefly in the law courts that May of 1932 but long enough to allow the articulation of a legal principle that endures to this day. The famous passage from Lord Atkei’s judgment that was to become an essential component of life and industry for the entire common law world including the UK and Australia reads as follows:

“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 being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question”.

Mrs Donoghue had succeeded by bare majority (3-2) and the case was sent back to Scotland for retrial. Controversy surrounds the existence of the snail but not the severe shock and gastroenteritis that was the cause of her financial woes.

The case – which was ultimately settled for a mere £200 – has been the subject of much legal commentary, many books and a documentary “The Paisley Snail”.

Lord Atkin’s upbringing in Redcliffe, and the egalitarian values he gained from that experience, feature throughout this writing.

Certainly a legacy – but on a different note to that of the famous Gibbs brothers.

Categories: Personal Injury , Opinonian , Litigation & Law Practice

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