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Doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur in Personal Injury Cases

The legal doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, meaning the thing speaks for itself, addresses situations in which the presence of negligence is obvious, even if the specific incident of negligence is difficult to discover.

Need to Know

  • Res ipsa loquitur is a legal doctrine whereby negligence can be inferred from the nature of the event.
  • Res ipsa loquitur helps to prevent a defendant from avoiding accountability in cases where the presence of negligence is discernible, even if the cause isn’t.
  • Three legal elements are needed to establish res ipsa loquitur: an inability to explain the incident without the presence of negligence, exclusive control of instrumentality on the part of the defendant, and an absence of contributory negligence on the part of the plaintiff.

Byrne v. Boadle, the classic 1863 tort law case which established res ipsa loquitur, concerned a barrel which fell from a second-story loft and injured an Englishman named Byrne. Although the court was unable to locate specific evidence of negligence against the company handling the barrels, the head of court saw the mere fact of the barrel having fallen as evidence of negligence.

To use a more modern scenario, think of the recent news story in which a prop gun on a film set fired a live round, fatally injuring a prominent member of the film crew. While a legal debate ensued as to the origin of the error, one truth was as clear to most Americans as it was to the family of the victim: A prop gun on a film set is not supposed to dispense live ammunition. Even if the legal investigation failed to account for any event that might have caused the gun to be loaded, that truth would have nonetheless held significance from a legal perspective. The doctrine of Res ipsa loquitur helps to prevent a defense from evading accountability in cases where the presence of negligence is easy to infer from the result.

Legal Elements of Res Ipsa Loquitur

Three legal elements are necessary to prove that res ipsa loquitur applies in a given case.

  1. It must be clear that the incident would not have occurred without negligence on the part of the defendant. In other words, there can be no explanation for the incident in which negligence does not play a role.

    Returning to the idea of a loaded prop gun as a hypothetical, if it were shown that an interfering party managed to load the gun moments before the incident after every reasonable safety check had been conducted, that alternative explanation would make the application of res ipsa loquitur difficult.

  2. The defendant must have been in exclusive control of the instrumentality of the circumstances at the time of the incident. In other words, the defendant had a reasonable power to control the situation, which it failed to appropriately exercise.

    If an actor on a set were to intentionally weaponize a prop gun—say by striking another party with the gun barrel—it would be difficult to attribute responsibility to others involved in the film production, unless it could be proved that the actor had a history of similar behavior which was ignored by the production team.

  3. There must be an absence of contributory negligence. In other words, it must be evident that the plaintiff did not contribute to the circumstances that caused the incident.

    The actor who aimed the prop gun at the cinematographer, facing accusations of handling the weapon irresponsibly, claimed to have been instructed to do so by the victim to plan the shot. Such a factor might complicate a res ipsa case against the actor.

Challenges of Invoking Res Ipsa Loquitur

The ability to prove all the elements of res ipsa loquitur does not, in itself, guarantee success in a case. Res ipsa loquitur addresses the legal concept known as burden of proof: the standard by which a person laying charges is required to present evidence toward the claim that he or she is making.

Using res ipsa loquitur allows the plaintiff to offer the event itself as evidence of negligence. However, it is a misconception that invoking res ipsa loquitur shifts the burden of proof to the defendant. The defendant is under no obligation to rebut a presumption of res ipsa loquitur and may, instead, choose to continue emphasizing the burden of proof on the plaintiff. Additionally, a jury is free to conduct its own analysis of the facts, which may lead it to reject the application of res ipsa loquitur.

This means that res ipsa loquitur commonly comes into play as a feature of alternative pleading. In alternative pleading, a plaintiff’s team puts forward multiple claims which may be at odds with one another, keeping several possible directions open to accommodate the way a case builds over time. Invoking res ipsa loquitur as one of multiple possible paths to a conclusion means that the plaintiff’s side of the case is not released from the task of gathering evidence of negligence, even as it continues to assert that negligence is self-evident. In other words, even if you have a strong claim to res ipsa loquitur, it’s likely that evidence will remain important to your case. A good attorney will strengthen your case for res ipsa loquitur by communicating the doctrine effectively, using clear reasoning, gathering expert testimony, and otherwise helping the jury to better understand the concepts involved.

Despite its literal meaning, res ipsa loquitur is like any legal doctrine—once introduced, it cannot be relied upon to speak in its own favor. It must be invoked by an attorney with sound tactical experience and the ability to develop a compelling case in front of a jury. The lawyers at Block O’Toole & Murphy have extensive trial experience and are committed to helping you get the results you need. Contact the experienced personal injury attorneys at Block O’Toole & Murphy to receive a free legal consultation by calling 212-736-5300, or by filling out our online contact form.

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