Skip to content
Thomson Reuters

The strange case of the dead snail, and other peculiar legal disputes

From warring neighbours to a dispute with a royal coachman, here are seven of the weirdest legal disputes to have tested and redefined UK law.

1. Ormond v Payne, 9 July 1789

In 1789, London butcher George Ormond suffered a broken leg when a royal carriage hit his cart. He sued for damages. The defendant in the case was Don Payne, who managed the affairs of the Prince of Wales at Carlton House and was therefore legally responsible for the actions of the prince’s coachman, George Smith, who had been in charge of the offending carriage.

According to Ormond’s testimony, the coachman was both intoxicated and in a terrible hurry. Ormond recalled that the moment the horses were harnessed, Smith mounted the box, drank a glass of gin, flogged his horses and galloped away. The jury found Payne liable for the coachman’s actions and awarded Ormond £100 in damages (equivalent to £13,900 in 2017).

Why it matters: “This is a notable case in the development of personal injury actions, which explained that a master could be liable for the acts and omissions of his servant. This ruling is at the heart of modern personal injury law”.
Charlene Michael-Imobioh, senior editor, case law, at Thomson Reuters

2. Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company, 7 December 1892

Towards the end of the 19th century, health innovations were becoming a common feature of the medical landscape. The Carbolic Smoke Ball Company claimed to have developed a cure for flu. It consisted of a small rubber ball with a tube attached; this was filled with carbolic acid that was flushed into the user’s nose. It came with a promise to pay £100 (the equivalent of £11,500 in 2017) to anyone who used the ball but still got sick. The company stated that it had deposited £1,000 in the bank to show its sincerity in the matter.

During the flu epidemic of 1892, Elizabeth Carlill, a writer and lawyer’s wife, bought a smoke ball, used it, but then caught flu. She sued the company and was deemed by the court to be entitled to the £100, as the company’s claim constituted an offer “to all of the world”, which she had accepted by performing the conditions stated in the offer.

Fifty years later, Mrs Carlill died at the age of 96 – from influenza.

Why it matters: “Before this case, adverts were largely regarded as an invitation to treat, rather than a legal offer capable of acceptance; rewards in such adverts were regarded as ‘mere puff’. Carlill was the first case in which it was found that an offer could be made to the world at large, and that acceptance of the offer could be communicated at the same time as notification as to performance, leading to a unilateral contract”.
Kate Mulvaney-Johnson, Senior Editor, Case Law, at Thomson Reuters

3. Fisher v Bell, 10 November 1960

The Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959 made it an offence to offer for sale certain weapons, including flick knives. When Bristol shopkeeper James Bell displayed a flick knife in his shop window, accompanied by a price ticket for four shillings, he found himself in court after a chief inspector of police alleged that he had broken the law.

The case was thrown out by the court because it was determined that Bell had not ‘offered’ the knives for sale. Under the law of contract, placing something in a shop window is an ‘invitation to treat’, and it is the customer who legally makes an offer to the shop by offering money to purchase an item on sale.

Why it matters: “The rule that items displayed in shops were an ‘invitation to treat’ had already been established, but this case used contract law to interpret a criminal statute. The 1959 Act did not make it a crime to ‘offer or expose’ the knives for sale, so the word ‘offer’ in the Act had to have the same meaning as under contract law – even if that failed to cover the mischief it was aimed at”.
Leigh Hudson, Senior Editor, Case Law, at Thomson Reuters

4. Donoghue v Stevenson, 26 May 1932

One of the oddest cases in British legal history involved a dead snail. One August afternoon in 1928, May Donoghue was sitting in a Paisley cafe drinking ginger beer, bought for her by a friend. Unfortunately the bottle also contained the decomposed remains of a snail. It made her seriously ill, but because she hadn’t bought the bottle herself, Donoghue couldn’t sue for breach of contract. Instead, she brought a claim of negligence against the manufacturer, on the grounds that it had a duty to ensure that production took place in a clean environment where snails couldn’t get into bottles.

After hearing the case, Lord Atkin set out the ‘neighbour principle’. This states that ‘reasonable care must be taken to avoid acts that can be reasonably foreseen to be likely to injure your neighbour”. The case was settled for £200 (the equivalent of £12,500 in 2017).

Why it matters: “This watershed case effectively severed the tort of negligence from contract law, extending negligence into areas previously not covered, where damage was foreseeable. It established that you owe a duty of care to your neighbour, and that your neighbour was any proximate person whom you ought reasonably to have in your contemplation as being affected by your acts or omissions. Critics think the principle went too far, and gave rise to our modern compensation culture”.
Bronagh Murphy, Senior Editor, Case Law, at Thomson Reuters

5. Sturges v Bridgman, 1 July 1879

In this case, two warring neighbours played a pivotal role in establishing an important principle in the law of nuisance. Dr Octavius Sturges, a physician, and Mr Bridgman, a confectioner, occupied adjoining premises in central London. For 20 years, Bridgman had used two large mortar and pestles in his manufacturing process. The resulting noise did not trouble the neighbouring physician, until he built a consulting room at the end of his garden, abutting the wall of the confectioner’s kitchen.

The doctor succeeded in securing an injunction to stop the noise: the confectioner could not claim long-term use of the equipment gave him the right to make such a noise.

Why it matters: “Sturges establishes that whether something amounts to a nuisance depends on its context: ‘What would be a nuisance in Belgrave Square would not necessarily be so in Bermondsey.’ It also establishes that a right to continue an activity that causes nuisance to a neighbour can only be acquired by prescription if the nuisance was actionable for the whole of the statutory 20-year period and during that time the neighbour did nothing except suffer in silence.”
Jane Guy, Senior Editor, Case Law, at Thomson Reuters

6. Fagan v Metropolitan Police Commissioner, 1 August 1968

In 1968, Vincent Fagan accidentally drove his car on to the foot of PC David Morris in north London. When the police officer asked Fagan to move the car off his foot, Fagan made him wait.

Fagan was convicted of ‘assaulting a constable in execution of his duties’, but appealed on the grounds that since he had driven on to the policeman’s foot by accident, his failure to move the car could not be an assault. The appeal failed when the judge found that a crime of assault is deemed to have been committed if someone accidentally commits a battery which they then refuse to discontinue. Fagan’s conviction for assault was upheld using what has become known as the ‘doctrine of the continuing act.’

Why it matters: “This case further developed the general principle in criminal law that to be guilty of a crime an individual had to possess the necessary mens rea (guilty mind) at the time of the actus reus (guilty act). Fagan established that where an act was continuing, a later emergence of mens rea during the act’s commission could form the requisite intention. Exceptions to this are strict liability offences, which do not require mens rea – for example, speeding.”Sally Cohen, Senior Editor, Case Law, at Thomson Reuters

7. Gorris v Smith, 23 April 1874

A ship owner was transporting a herd of sheep to Great Britain when a number of them were washed overboard in a storm. The owner of the sheep sought to recover damages for the loss of the sheep, claiming that the ship owner was in breach of a statutory duty under the Contagious Diseases (Animals) Act 1869, which required pens to be installed on the decks of ships to transport animals. He argued that had the sheep been penned they would have survived. The court dismissed the claim because the purpose of the Act was clearly to prevent the possibility of animals being exposed to disease, not to prevent them being washed overboard. The ship owner’s non-compliance with the Act had resulted in a harm that the Act was not designed to protect against.

Why it matters: “A party who suffers loss due to another party’s breach of a statutory duty only has a right of redress when the loss is of a kind contemplated by the statute that created the duty.”
Lisa Fergusson, Senior Editor, Case Law, at Thomson Reuters

Changing the legal landscape—embracing social media strategies to engage clients and the public “Respect is not an indulgence”—inclusive and effective change leadership in legal teams Are some diversity initiatives actually making gender diversity worse? Bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession—us too? What motivates and worries aspiring lawyers? The future of legal education and training: where’s the problem and will the SQE fix it? “Diversity will be the differentiator for law firms that are succeeding in the next 50 years” Tackling gender inequality: are quotas the answer? “The public is not confident all solicitors are meeting the same high standards” Could having an MBA benefit corporate lawyers?