What is Res Ipsa Loquitur? (Applied to Personal Injury & Med Mal Cases)

In every personal injury lawsuit, you need to prove that the defendant was responsible for your injuries to receive financial compensation. In some cases, it can be very difficult. Something so extreme may have happened that negligence would be obvious, even if nobody saw what happened.

Here, there is a doctrine called res ipsa loquitur that dates back for centuries that roughly states that the fact that something happened is proof of negligence on its own.

If you or a loved one have been injured in an accident, the attorneys at Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers can help you fight for financial compensation.

The Theory of Res Ipsa Loquitur

Res ipsa loquitur is itself a form of circumstantial evidence. According to the Restatement of Torts:

“The factfinder may infer that the defendant has been negligent when the accident causing the plaintiff’s harm is a type of accident that ordinarily happens as a result of the negligence of a class of actors of which the defendant is the relevant member.”

The plaintiff may not have the direct evidence necessary to prove the defendant’s negligence. Res ipsa loquitur exists as a form of evidence law to give the plaintiff an alternative way to prove that the defendant was negligent.

In most cases, the plaintiff would fail to meet their burden of proof, and the judge would issue a directed verdict if they did not have detailed testimony about what really happened. In certain cases, it would just not be possible. To deny the plaintiff any financial compensation because of it would be unjust.

You May Not Otherwise Be Able to Establish Negligence

The entire basis of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is that you may never be able to prove that something happened through direct negligence. If nobody saw what happened, you may lack the witness testimony that would otherwise show what the defendant did. Without a common law doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, you may not be able to prove that the defendant’s duty was breached.

If you did not have a common law doctrine like this, you may never be able to meet your own burden of proof. Then, the judge would order a directed verdict, where the jury would not even get to deliberate. This legal doctrine allows you to reach the jury because the circumstances were so extreme that they could be evidence of someone’s negligence.

Res Ipsa Loquitur Is Often an Allegation in a Personal Injury Lawsuit

Many legal concepts borrow heavily from the Latin language. One Latin phrase that comes into play in many personal injury cases is res ipsa loquitur. Strictly translated into English, it means that “the thing speaks for itself.” This is one of the more fascinating doctrines of tort law, and it is one that benefits plaintiffs when there is no direct proof of what happened.

Res ipsa loquitur means that there are some things that are so egregious that the mere fact that the thing happened is direct evidence of negligence. Some things should never happen at all in the first place. There is no other possible explanation for it other than the defendant’s negligence.

What Happened May Be Proof of the Defendant’s Negligence

The principle behind res ipsa loquitur is that the very thing that happened infers a negligent action. You do not need direct evidence. What occurred in your case is not something that would ordinarily happen in the defendant used reasonable care.

The mere fact that the act occurred means that you just need to show what happened. You are relieved from the burden to prove negligence in your personal injury case.

In many respects, this legal doctrine represents common sense. The logical conclusion when someone suffered this type of injury is that someone did something wrong.

The Elements of Res Ipsa Loquitur

Here are the three elements that you would need to prove to make a prima facie case:

  • The injury would not ordinarily occur without negligence
  • The defendant had exclusive control of the instrumentality or agency that caused the injury
  • The plaintiff’s injury was not caused by anything that they di

You Do Not Need Direct Evidence of Negligence

In the usual negligence case, you would need to meet four elements of test. You would need to show that someone did not use reasonable care under the circumstances. Ordinarily, you would need to prove that:

  • The defendant owed you a duty of care
  • The defendant breached the duty of care by acting unreasonably under the circumstances
  • You suffered an injury
  • You would not have suffered the injury had it not been for the actions of the defendant

If nobody was able to see exactly what happened, you may not be able to prove the second element. You could not compare what the defendant did to what a reasonable person would have done because nobody can testify to what the defendant did.

Without a doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, you would never be able to meet your burden of proof to show that the defendant acted negligently.

Res Ipsa Loquitur Can Be a Backup Argument

In many cases, you may first try to prove that specific negligence caused your injuries. You can raise both specific negligence and res ipsa loquitur at the same time.

If the jury does not accept your argument of direct negligence, you can ask them to consider a res ipsa based argument.

The judge would ultimately decide whether to give an instruction for the jury to consider res ipsa loquitur when it deliberates.

The Res Ipsa Loquitur Case of Byrne v. Boadle

Res ipsa loquitur was applied in the English case (where much of our common law originates) of Byrne v. Boadle. This case is the seminal statement of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.

In this case, a barrel of flour fell out of a warehouse window on the second floor. Two people saw the barrel fall and hit the plaintiff, but nobody saw how the barrel fell. While the trial court did not find the defendant committed a negligent act, the appeals court ruled for the plaintiff. One of the judges made the following statement:

“A barrel could not roll out of a warehouse without some negligence, and to say that a plaintiff who is injured by it must call witnesses from the warehouse to prove negligence seems to me preposterous.”

Simply stated, barrels do not fall out of warehouse windows when someone is exercising reasonable care.

The Res Ipsa Loquitur Case of Johnson v. United States

The United States Supreme Court has also weighed in on this legal theory. In 1948, the Court decided the case of Johnson v. United States. Here, the court applied res ipsa loquitur in the context of the Jones Act, which is a federal statute allowing injured seaman to file negligence lawsuits against their employer.

In this case, two employees were working together. One was standing on the deck above the other employee. The two were using a rope system to pull blocks. One employee was supposed to control his block. He did not, and a 25-30 pound block fell on his fellow employee.

The Court did not even really delve into the facts of the case at all. The decision stated that blocks should not fall from a deck onto an employee. Since the employee’s testimony was not contradicted, the Court applied res ipsa loquitur. Since the United States owned the ship as the employer, it was responsible to pay for the injured seaman’s damages.

Defenses in a Res Ipsa Case

Once you establish negligence in a res ipsa loquitur case, the burden shifts to the defendant to disprove their own negligence. Some defenses that they may use include the following:

  • There are possible alternative causes of the plaintiff’s injury that are not negligence based
  • The plaintiff may have been partially at fault for what happened
  • The plaintiff did not name all the possible causes of the injury
  • The instrument that caused the injury was not under the defendant’s exclusive control
  • There are other defendants who could be responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries

Common Examples of a Res Ipsa Loquitur Claim

The legal doctrine makes its way into a number of different personal injury cases. Here are some examples:

  • Airplane crashes
  • Building collapses
  • Injuries caused by cars that roll downhill on their own
  • Falling object cases

Res Ipsa Loquitur in Medical Malpractice Cases

The doctrine is often used for patients to get financial compensation for injuries sustained in a surgical procedure. You do not know what happened when you were under anesthesia. While you may have expert witnesses, they can only do so much to explain why the injury occurred.

Much of the information is under control of the doctor, and they will try to keep it from coming to light because it will make them liable.

When a doctor leaves a surgical instrument in the body, it would be a clear case of res ipsa loquitur. There can be other injuries, that may be unexplained. The fact that they happened, along with expert testimony, could be enough to prove negligence on the part of the doctor.

Res Ipsa Loquitur in Product Liability Cases

If you are wondering can res ipsa loquitur apply in product liability cases, the answer is yes.

There are numerous examples of defects in products that absolutely should not happen under any circumstances. One of the first examples that comes to mind is something like a fingernail or dead animal inside a food container. Another classic example is the exploding soda bottle that injures a plaintiff when they open it.

Courts Do Not Always Want to Infer Negligence

Asking a court to infer negligence based on what happened is a relatively drastic measure. As a result, courts are not always willing to take a step that far. Although the res ipsa loquitur doctrine exists to help you in your case, courts are often hesitant to apply it.

However, it does not mean that they will never infer negligence. There are some fact patterns that are so extreme that a court would apply the doctrine of res ipsa to enable you to recover financial compensation.

Damages in a Res Ipsa Loquitur Case

Like any other personal injury case, you may be entitled to the following damages when you can show negligence through the application of res ipsa loquitur:

  • Medical treatment
  • Lost wages for time missed from work
  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of enjoyment of life
  • Scarring and permanent disfigurement

In some cases, you may even be able to obtain punitive damages in these cases because what happened is so outrageous and extreme. For example, food sellers that have been sued for dead animals in food containers have often been ordered to pay large punitive damages awards.

While damages are rare in a personal injury case, these fact patterns are prime examples of things that may aggravate or anger a jury.

Call Our Law Firm for a Free Consultation

The attorneys at Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers work with injured accident victims to recover financial compensation when someone else was at fault for their injury.

We work with you to build a legal case for compensation, investigate your accident and build the proof necessary to get a settlement check or jury award for your injuries. To learn more about how we can help you, call our office today at (888) 424-5757 or send us a message online.