Res ipsa loquitur is a Latin term which means ‘the thing speaks for itself’. Many of the statutes clearly specify that the judicial doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is a presumption affecting the burden of producing evidence[i].
In the common law of negligence, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur states that the elements of duty of care and breach can be sometimes inferred from the very nature of the accident, even without direct evidence of defendant’s conduct.
“The first prerequisite for invocation of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, and the inference of negligence it permits is that, the injury-causing event be of a kind that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence”[ii].
Res ipsa loquitur describes a set of conditions to be met before an inference of negligence can be drawn. “Res ipsa loquitur is a rule that the fact of the occurrence of an injury and the surrounding circumstances of the defendant’s control and management permits an inference of culpability on the part of the defendant, make out plaintiff’s prima facie case, and present a question of fact for the defendant to meet with an explanation”[iii].
When the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is applied, the presumed fact is that a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury was some negligent conduct on the part of the defendant. At trial, before the burden-shifting presumption arises, the plaintiff must present some substantial evidence of three conditions:
- the injury must be the kind which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone’s negligence;
- the injury was caused by an instrumentality in the exclusive control of the defendant; and
- the injury was not due to any voluntary action or contribution on the part of the plaintiff[iv].
However, res ipsa loquitur cannot be applied in all negligence cases. Res Ipsa Loquitur does not apply when the defendant did not have exclusive control over the property. For example, res ipse loquitur cannot be applied in a claim that farm equipment was damaged by mud over a gas pipeline over which defendant pipeline owner had no exclusive control over. In order to apply res ipsa loquitur, the plaintiff must prove that:
- the defendant had exclusive control of the instrumentality causing the plaintiff’s injury; and
- the injury is the kind which ordinarily does not occur absent negligence[v].
The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur does not apply in cases where a defendant owes no duty to a plaintiff. The existence of a reasonable explanation also avoids the application of the doctrine.
The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is not applicable to slip and fall cases since an owner of a premises is not an insurer of the safety of its invitees. A presumption of negligence will not arise from the mere existence of an injury to an invitee. An owner of a premise is liable only when s/he fails to use reasonable care in maintaining the premises in a reasonably safe manner[vi].
[i] Cal Evid Code § 646.
[ii] States v. Lourdes Hosp., 100 N.Y.2d 208, 210 (N.Y. 2003).
[iii] Mireles v. Broderick, 117 N.M. 445, 448 (N.M. 1994).
[iv] Elcome v. Chin, 110 Cal. App. 4th 310, 316-317 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. 2003).
[v] Wheeler v. Koch Gathering Sys., 131 F.3d 898, 903 (10th Cir. Okla. 1997).
[vi] Flagstar Enters. v. Bludsworth, 696 So. 2d 292, 294 (Ala. Civ. App. 1996).