Sunday, September 24, 2023

How Ginger Started Multibillion-Dollar Product Lawsuits

A court case involving ginger beer a hundred years ago paved the way for multibillion-dollar lawsuits.

This article is for a casual read about a medicinal plant, ginger.

Today, nothing scares a company more than a product liability lawsuit. Multi-billion dollar awards are standard though whether they are justified is a different discussion altogether.

Things were different a century ago. Back then, one was accountable for personal injury only if it involved physical contact with the victim. If a manufacturer made an unsafe product that harmed someone, the producer was not considered guilty.

That changed one night in 1928.

Ginger Beer

On an August evening that year, one Mrs May Donoghue was visiting Paisley, Scotland. She went to a café with a friend and ordered a drink prepared with ice cream and ginger beer.

As she poured ginger beer into her ice cream tumbler, a decomposed snail fell out of the bottle. The lady felt sick at the sight and complained of abdominal pain. A few days later, she was diagnosed with severe gastroenteritis and shock.

The lady sued the ginger beer producer, Mr David Stevenson. Until then, you could take a manufacturer to court only if there was a contract between you and him. So the legal experts felt that there was no case against the beer brewer.

However, in this dispute, the House of Lords—the Upper House of the Parliament, UK—ruled that the manufacturer was at fault for failing to ensure his product’s safety. This was the first instance when carelessness was enough to fix liability.

Law of Negligence

This Donoghue v. Stevenson case became a landmark in the modern Law of Negligence. It introduced the concept that a duty of care applies without a contract. It also set a precedent that anybody who uses a product should be protected, not just the one who buys it.

In plain English:

  1. Mrs Donoghue did not need a contract between her and the beer manufacturer to demand compensation.
  2. She did not have to buy the beer drink; even if her friend bought the drink and she drank, she could claim damages.

Consumer Protection Act

In 1986, Consumer Protection Act was introduced with one more layer of strict liability. It was no longer necessary to prove the manufacturer’s fault for the injury caused to the end user.

If the consumer faced any harm from a product, it did not matter whether the manufacturer was responsible for it. The concept of unintentional action, which leads to injury to another, was a sufficient basis for compensation.

In plain English:

  • The manufacturer did not have to be responsible for the snail getting in the bottle.
  • Since he did not make the bottle foolproof—that is, good enough to prevent the snail from entering the bottle—he was at fault.

The Infamous McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case

We have heard of the 1992 case where a woman spilt McDonald’s coffee, sued and got $3 million compensation. It is considered a frivolous case by a greedy individual and is often cited as an example of the US judicial system going overboard.

However, if you consider the principles discussed above, it is a decent case for compensation. While I have no expertise in law, you may wish to read these:

McDonald’s made a coffee that could cause grievous injuries if handled incorrectly in the normal course of life. They knew it but did not rectify it. A decent case for compensation!

Multi-Billion Dollar Product Lawsuits

A hundred years after the ginger beer episode, we have perhaps swung too far to the other extreme. But that is beyond my expertise and I wrote this article as a casual read about a medicinal plant saying:

Today’s multibillion-dollar product liability lawsuits have their humble origins in a bottle of ginger beer.

Most of the information in this article is taken from my upcoming book to be published by Macmillan Publishers in Nov 2023. The book discusses a thousand such preventive health tidbits. It covers twenty superfoods, their nutrients, health benefits, recommended amounts and excess levels. It also explains how to select and store and who should avoid them. Some of the superfoods are tomatoes, coconut, capsicum (Shimla mirch), drumsticks, amla (Indian gooseberry), jamun (Java plum), turmeric, cinnamon, flax seeds, asafoetida (hing), and sabja (sweet basil seeds).

To Read More

First Published on: 21st July 2023
Image credit: Racool_studio on Freepik


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