Res ipsa loquitur is a Latin phrase that means "the thing speaks for itself." In personal injury law, the concept of res ipsa loquitur (or just "res ipsa" for short) operates as an evidentiary rule that allows plaintiffs to establish a rebuttable presumption of negligence on the part of the defendant through the use of circumstantial evidence.
This means that while plaintiffs typically have to prove that the defendant acted with a negligent state of mind, through res ipsa loquitur, if the plaintiff puts forth certain circumstantial facts, it becomes the defendant's burden to prove he or she was not negligent.
Res Ipsa Loquitur and Evidence Law: Background
Accidents happen all the time, and the mere fact that an accident has occurred doesn't necessarily mean that someone's negligence caused it. In order to prove negligence in a personal injury lawsuit, a plaintiff must present evidence to demonstrate that the defendant's negligence resulted in the plaintiff's injury. Sometimes, direct evidence of the defendant's negligence doesn't exist, but plaintiffs can still use circumstantial evidence in order to establish negligence.
Circumstantial evidence consists of facts that point to negligence as a logical conclusion rather than demonstrating it outright. This allows judges and juries to infer negligence based on the totality of the circumstances and the shared knowledge that arises out of human experience. Res ipsa is one type of circumstantial evidence that allows a reasonable fact finder to determine that the defendant's negligence caused an unusual event that subsequently caused injury to the plaintiff.
This doctrine arose out of a case where the plaintiff suffered injuries from a falling barrel of flour while walking by a warehouse. At the trial, the plaintiff's attorney argued that the facts spoke for themselves and demonstrated the warehouse's negligence since no other explanation could account for the cause of the plaintiff's injuries.
As it has developed since then, res ipsa allows judges and juries to apply common sense to a situation in order to determine whether or not the defendant acted negligently.
Elements of Res Ipsa Loquitur
Since the laws of personal injury and evidence are determined at the state level, the law regarding res ipsa loquitur varies slightly between states. That said, a general consensus has emerged, and most states follow one basic formulation of res ipsa.
Under this model for res ipsa, there are three requirements that the plaintiff must meet before a jury can infer that the defendant's negligence caused the harm in question:
The Presence of Negligence
As mentioned above, not all accidents occur because of someone else's negligence. Some accidents, on the other hand, almost never occur unless someone has acted negligently.
Going back to the old case of the falling flour-barrel, it's a piece of shared human knowledge that things don't generally fall out of warehouse windows unless someone hasn't taken care to block the window or hasn't ensured that items on the warehouse floor are properly stored. When something does fall out of a warehouse window, the law will assume that it happened because someone was negligent.
Only the Defendant Is Responsible
The second component of a res ipsa case hinges on whether the defendant carries sole responsibility for the injury. If the plaintiff can't prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant's negligence cause the injury, then they will not be able to recover under res ipsa.
States sometimes examine whether the defendant had exclusive control over the specific instrumentality that caused the accident in order to determine if the defendant's negligence caused the injury. For example, if a surgeon leaves a sponge inside the body of a patient, a jury can infer that the surgeon's negligence caused the injury since he had exclusive control over the sponges during the operation.
The Defendant Owes the Plaintiff a Duty of Care
In addition to the first two elements, the defendant must also owe a duty of care to protect the plaintiff from the type of injury at issue in the suit. If the defendant does not have such a duty, or if the type of injury doesn't fall within the scope of that duty, then there is no liability.
For example, in many states, landowners don't owe trespassers any duty to protect them against certain types of dangers on their property. Thus, even if a trespasser suffers an injury that was caused by the defendant's action or inaction and that wouldn't normally occur in the absence of negligence, res ipsa loquitur won't establish negligence since the landowner never had any responsibility to prevent injury to the trespasser in the first place.
Rebutting Res Ipsa
Res ipsa only allows plaintiffs to establish the inference of the defendant's negligence, not to prove the negligence completely. Defendants can still rebut the presumption of negligence that res ipsa creates by refuting one of the elements listed above.
For example, the defendant could prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the injury could occur even if reasonable care took place to prevent it. An earthquake could shake an item loose and it could fall out of the warehouse window, for instance.
A defendant could also demonstrate that the plaintiff's own negligence contributed to the injury. To go back to the flour-barrel example, if the defendant shows that the plaintiff was standing in an area marked as dangerous it could rebut the presumption of negligence created by res ipsa.
Finally, the defendant could establish that he did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care under the law, or that the injury did not fall within the scope of the duty owed. For example, if the law only imposes a limited duty on the defendant not to behave recklessly, then res ipsa will not help the plaintiff by creating an inference of negligence since a negligent action would not violate the duty owed to the plaintiff.
Have Questions About Res Ipsa Loquitur? Get a Free Legal Evaluation
Minor details can become extremely important when determining whether the elements exist for a res ipsa loquitur action -- details best left to an exerienced lawyer. By having an attorney review your claim for free, you can have the peace of mind of knowing the strength of your claim and any steps you'll need to take moving forward.