The duty to take care not to harm your ‘neighbours’

Mrs Donoghue was in a café with her friend, who bought her a ginger beer. She was ill after having drunk some of it because the bottle had a dead snail in it! However, she had not bought the bottle so she could not sue for breach of contract — she had no contract with the shop owner or the bottle manufacturer. Instead, she brought a case in negligence, a part of tort law, saying that the bottle manufacturer had a duty to make sure that the ginger beer was made in a clean place where snails could not get into the bottles.

This is where Lord Atkin set out the famous ‘neighbour principle’: I have a duty towards “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 that are called in question”. This sounds like you have to think about the possible impact of everything you do on anybody it could affect, but in reality there are many limits on negligence law – including that you have to breach that duty of care.

In order to pursue a successful claim for personal injury compensation it is necessary to establish that somebody else was at fault. Fault will arise through negligence or the breach of a duty imposed in law, known as breach of statutory duty. In some circumstances the law imposes specific duties on parties, known as statutory duties.

A large amount of Health & Safety Legislation introduced absolute duties upon employers although these duties were effectively removed and replaced by the common law of negligence with regard to any accident which occurred on or after 1st October 2013.

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