You are my neighbour, because what I do could influence your life, writes Naomi Currie. Each day we make choices that alter both our lives and others’ irrevocably.
BY Naomi Currie
It seems strange that a common garden snail achieved more for justice in its death than many men or women do in their lifetimes. Not that the snail ever knew how it rewrote consumer law and redefined ‘being a good neighbour’. As I said, the snail was dead. Dead and decomposing – in a bottle of Stevenson’s Finest Ginger Beer.
Eighty-five years ago, an unnamed friend bought a bottle of Stevenson’s ginger beer from a wayside café and shared it with Mrs Donuhue. When Mrs Donuhue emptied the dregs of the ginger beer onto her ice-cream spider, she discovered the disintegrating remains of a snail. After subsequent, severe gastroenteritis she sued the drink manufacturer David Stevenson for compensation to cover shock and medical costs.
In Australia today, this request seems reasonable. “Snail” was certainly not a declared ingredient, and an intact seal suggested the snail had entered the bottle in Stevenson’s manufacturing plant. And if the manufacturer hesitated to pay up, a little legal blackmail – a vent on social media and an ‘exclusive’ interview with a television station – could quickly induce an apology and compensation.
But in 1932, social media didn’t exist and consumer law was in its infancy. Stevenson denied responsibility, arguing Mrs Donuhue had no right to complain about a bottle of ginger beer she hadn’t bought. Stevenson claimed that once he had sold the bottle to the distributer, who in turn sold it to the café, the contents of the bottle were no longer his responsibility.
Previous court cases seemed to support Stevenson’s claim. In them, judges had agreed an unwritten contract for goods, and hence responsibility for product quality, only existed between direct buyers and sellers.
There was nothing in British law about who was responsible for product quality if A sold something to B, who sold it to C, who gave it to D… Nothing in journal after journal, thicker than the span of a man’s hand, of court cases and expositions on legal principles. Certainly nothing on snails. Or ginger beer.
Eventually Donuhue v Stevenson reached the apex of the Scottish appeal mechanism – the British House of Lords. The six lawyers appointed to hear the case couldn’t find much guidance in British law either.
But one of them, Lord Atkin, found something in another legal book. The Bible.
“The whole law of torts,” Atkin had earlier declared, “could… be comprised in the golden maxim to do unto your neighbour as you would [want him to]… do unto you.”
This time the Christian turned to the Gospel of Luke, to the story widely known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan for guidance. “I find myself,” Atkin wrote in his judgement, “asking the [Jewish] lawyer’s question, “Who then is my neighbour?” The answer seems to be; persons… [my act] closely and directly affected,” in predictable ways.
Consequently, the committee declared that a consumer could hold the manufacturer responsible, regardless of who actually sold them the product. It was, at the time, a highly controversial ruling, yet within a year, the ‘neighbour principle’ was officially part of Australian law. Already the principle had expanded in application, from snails to two pairs of itchy underpants at the centre of Grant v Knitting Mills Australia 1933.
It is difficult for many Australians today to appreciate the significance of Donuhue v Stevenson. Perhaps it is most obvious in consumer rights, such as the ability to gain a refund on a faulty item, or to claim compensation for hurt caused by another person.
Generally, however, the ‘neighbour principle’ is overlooked. When admiring a flower, how many of us stop to think about the roots that support and sustain the beauty? How many of us consider ‘being a good neighbour’ in the context of clean drinking water, safety at work, driving a car, and walking down a public footpath?
The power of the neighbour principle is in prevention. It is about all people, governments, groups and businesses stopping to consider who their actions might affect, and taking steps to reduce risk of harm. It means rights, justice, safety and the saving of thousands, if not millions of lives across Australia and the world.
And it means you are my neighbour, and I am yours.
My neighbour is the mother I didn’t stop to help lift her pram up the step; and the man who couldn’t find the library book he wanted because I kept it a day later than it was due. My neighbour is my sister, who washed the dishes I left behind; and the boy on crutches I didn’t hold the door open for. My neighbour is the person who rang me back, when I had promised to ring them but didn’t; and the shop assistant who had to re-fold the bargain t-shirts I left in a heap. My neighbour is the person my action or inaction affected.
You are my neighbour, because what I do could influence your life. Perhaps neither of us have let a snail crawl into a bottle of ginger beer, but each day we make choices that alter both our lives and others’ irrevocably.
Sometimes it could be as simple as asking a question. Who is my neighbour? Or answering a question. Jesus telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It could be writing something down. Luke recording Jesus’ teachings. Or reading something. Like Lord Atkin opening his Bible to find an answer to a problem. Tiny incidents that altered the course of history.
Perhaps it is appropriate that the snail had to die to achieve justice. Being a neighbour requires sacrifice. It means stopping in our often reckless pursuit of our own desires to consider other people. It means the giving up of our time, plans, self-centredness and money; sometimes for just a moment, sometimes for a lifetime.
Christ gave up his life for us. He is our God, and our neighbour. And He asks each of us “Who is your neighbour?”
This article was awarded joint second place in The Good Oil 2017 Young Writers’ Award, post-school (18 to 35 years) category.