Is the Legal Doctrine of ‘Res Ipsa Loquitur’ Losing Its Voice?
The Anglo-American legal doctrine of res ipsa loquitur (the thing speaks for itself) began with an 1863 English case when a pedestrian was struck by a barrel of flour falling while being lowered from the upper floors of a warehouse that was entirely occupied by the defendant. The plaintiff could not present evidence of precisely how the defendant was negligent. Nevertheless, the plaintiff won his lawsuit under a presumption of negligence when the defendant failed to provide an explanation for the event (Byrne v. Boadle).
Moving forward, U.S. courts are reluctant to dispense with a plaintiff proving precisely how a defendant was negligent. In the following fifteen examples, randomly selected from over one hundred 2015 court decisions, the plaintiff for a variety of reasons was unable to successfully assert res ipsa loquitur, meaning that these events did not “speak for themselves.” The plaintiff was required to prove negligence by the defendant.
- Livestock on the highway were hit by a car.
- A mis-leveled elevator caused a fall.
- A patient with a fractured pelvis was improperly diagnosed.
- A newly installed HVAC system caught on fire.
- A city sewer system overflowed into a home after a two-day rainstorm.
- Airborne chemicals came from installed spray-foam insulation.
- Four foreign objects were left in a patient’s abdomen during a 1999 surgery.
- Fireworks mortar shells launched at a July 3 celebration fell among spectators causing injuries.
- A jail trustee was injured in an explosion while attempting to relight a gas-fired furnace.
- A squirrel in an electrical transformer on a power pole caused a house fire.
- A conscious patient saw a drainage tube removed; however, part of the tube remained in his body.
- A newspaper delivery man was injured when a step collapsed at an apartment complex.
- A patient asserted improper post-surgery care.
- Air bags failed to deploy in an automobile accident.
- Ratchet straps failed causing a tree stand to collapse.
Courts often make the following type statements as a prelude to denying the application of res ipsa loquitur:
- The instrumentality producing the injury must be solely and exclusively under the control of the defendant.
- The only reasonable hypothesis for the product’s failure must be a defect due to a breach of duty or omission by the defendant.
- Res ipsa loquitur is a rule of circumstantial evidence grounded in probability and sound procedural policy.
- Res ipsa loquitur is inapplicable if the accident might have occurred without the defendant’s negligence.
- The injury must not have been caused or contributed to by any voluntary act on the part of the plaintiff.
- The connection between negligence and injury may not be based upon speculation or conjecture.
- All parties who could have caused the injury must be joined as defendants.
This comment provides only a very brief educational overview of a complex legal topic and is not intended to constitute legal advice.
By: Brad Reid, The Huffington Post