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The Beginnings of Personal Injury Law

Levinson AxelrodPersonal injury law as it is known today is a relatively new type of tort law that is said to have originated in the UK in the 19th Century. In the US, personal injury law became established in the 20th century, and really gained strength in the 1970s.

Personal injury laws evolved primarily from court decisions and rulings that served to gradually establish the foundation of what is commonly referred to as a “duty of care,” which in turn is cited whenever a case of negligence is brought up.

The first personal injury case that made use of the term “duty of care” is Donoghue v. Stevenson brought before the House of Lords in 1932. The incident, widely known as the Paisley snail case, involved the discovery of a dead snail in the bottle of ginger beer being consumed by the plaintiff, Mrs. Donoghue in 1928. The defendant, David Stevenson, was the manufacturer of the ginger beer. The counsels for Mrs. Donoghue were George Morton KC and William Milligan, making them the first personal injury lawyers in modern legal history.

The term “duty of care” was introduced by Lord Atkin during arguments in the House of Lords. He stated that “a manufacturer of products, which he sells in such a form as to show that he intends them to reach the ultimate consumer in the form in which they left him…and with the knowledge that the absence of reasonable care in the preparation or putting up of the products will result in an injury to the consumer’s life or property, owes a duty to the consumer to take that reasonable care.” It was 3-2 decision in favor of affirming that Mrs. Donoghue had a cause of action.

The case was important because it established the legal basis for a personal injury claim; that is, duty of care. It set a precedent which a personal injury lawyer could cite for subsequent cases. Ironically, Mrs. Donoghue did not actually win her claim in court. By the time the case could be brought before the Court of Session, which would decide if damages would be awarded or not based on the evidence, Mr. Stevenson had passed away. Mrs. Donoghue eventually settled with Stevenson’s estate.

If you or someone you know was injured in some way by a manufacturer’s negligence, you and your personal injury lawyer can thank Lord Atkin for establishing that you have a cause of action.

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