After many people have an accident or suffer a personal injury, they strongly believe that someone else was at fault. The facts of the accident may be such that the responsible party is about as clear as day. The person may have done something so egregiously bad that there is no other conclusion to reach that they should be held responsible for the accident. There is a legal name for that feeling of yours. It is called res ipsa loquitur.
While the average personal injury plaintiff does not speak Latin and may not be familiar with legal parlance, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur makes perfect sense to just about anyone. The English translation of this term is “the thing speaks for itself.” In legal terms, it means that there may not be much more that you need to do other than prove that a certain thing happened to you. If you did, there is a presumption that someone else is responsible. If you succeed, you should receive financial compensation.
The Defendant’s Actions Would Be Automatically Unreasonable If You Sustain an Injury in This Way
Normally, you need to establish that the defendant owed you a duty of care in a personal injury case. The second step is showing that the defendant breached the duty of care. In practically every personal injury case, this is a fact-intensive exercise that requires evidence and perhaps even expert testimony.
Many times, your personal injury case could turn on a few small details as you are comparing the actions of the defendant against what a reasonable person would have done under the circumstances. The bulk of your personal injury lawyer’s fact investigation aims to prove what happened in the accident and why someone else was at fault.
The general statement of this in a personal injury case is that negligence must be proven, and it is not inferred. You must prove your case by a preponderance of the evidence. In the normal case, just because you are injured does not mean that someone else was automatically liable for what happened.
The Accident Would Not Have Happened If There Had Been No Negligence
The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is a way around this difficult burden of proof that you have at trial. Here, it would help you by the fact that you have suffered an injury in an accident that would have never happened if someone was not negligent in the first place. Ordinary care would completely prevent the type of injury that you suffered.
The Elements of a Res Ipsa Loquitur Claim
The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur would usually require that the plaintiff establish three things in their civil case.
The res ipsa loquitur elements are:
- The thing that caused the injury was always under the control of the defendant.
- The injury would ordinarily have not happened if the defendant used proper care.
- The defendant has no plausible explanation of how their lack of care did not cause the plaintiff’s injury.
- The defendant did not do anything that could have caused their own injury (although some courts do not apply contributory negligence if a side uses res ipsa loquitur).
- Nobody else could have been responsible for the plaintiff’s injury.
Here, if the judge found that these applied based on the evidence, they would give the jury an instruction of re ipsa loquitur. Here, the plaintiff would need to show that they were just going about their daily business doing nothing wrong when they were injured.
Res Ipsa Loquitur Is a Combination of Facts and Common Sense
Theoretically, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur requires some sort of proof of facts along with an application of common sense. Plaintiffs rely on juries to draw some inferences from the fact that certain things happened to conclude that the defendant was liable.
To fully understand what res ipsa loquitur is, you should know how the legal doctrine came into being. It dates back to the mid-nineteenth century in England. A pedestrian was walking on their way and happened to pass by a warehouse. Out of nowhere, a barrel of flour rolled out of a window and struck the pedestrian.
When the pedestrian sued for financial compensation, there was a question that arose whether they really needed to have any type of proof of negligence. After all, what happened was egregious, and it would be difficult to prove what may have been behind a barrel suddenly falling out of a window.
The presiding judge in the case seemingly invented the rule on the spot, but it stuck. Within a couple of years, lawyers were citing the res ipsa loquitur doctrine in English cases, and judges soon introduced the elements of the test. In a way, judges were merely using this doctrine as a legal application of the regular test of common sense. The doctrine has appeared in the United States since then.
Res Ipsa Loquitur Helps Injured Plaintiffs
In a way, res ipsa loquitur is a judge-created doctrine meant to help plaintiffs. In the case of the barrel, it would have been difficult for the plaintiff to get the evidence that they needed to prove liability. The barrel itself was under the control of the defendant. Here, the plaintiff could not get the evidence that they needed to prove liability, and their case would be at risk because of it.
While we have robust discovery before a trial these days, courts continue to use this doctrine since it is settled law. If the negligence is so apparent, it makes sense not to force plaintiffs to have to prove the obvious.
Res ipsa loquitur is a versatile doctrine and has a use in many types of civil cases. Since the burden of proof is lower than that of a criminal case, the doctrine can meet the preponderance of evidence standard. Civil cases (besides negligence cases) in actions for things such as antitrust law violations can even use res ipsa loquitur.
Examples of Res Ipsa Loquitur Cases
In any law school class, the professor will usually cover the classic examples of res ipsa loquitur. One of them is the surgeon who leaves a sponge or a medical instrument inside a patient after surgery, causing them injury. There is no good reason whatsoever for a surgeon to make this kind of error.
Such an act is so blatantly negligent that a defendant could not offer any plausible justification. Their only possible defense could be that someone else did it, but this would not keep an injured patient from receiving compensation. In this case, the injured patient could just present evidence that the surgeon left surgical equipment inside, and it is up to the defendants to argue why each one was not responsible. In the end, someone will be responsible, and the plaintiff would receive compensation.
Additional examples of things that could be considered res ipsa loquitur include:
- You have sustained an injury in a car accident with a driver going the wrong way down a one-way street.
- As a consumer, you suffered an injury when a soda bottle that you opened exploded.
- You were sickened when you bit into a piece of food and found there was a rodent in it.
- You are standing on a scaffold or walkway when it collapses.
- A gas leak injured you or a loved one.
The Doctrine Usually Appears in Simple Cases
Usually, the best use of res ipsa loquitur is in simple cases. The more complex the facts, the less likely the jury could infer negligence. As you can see, its best use is in cases of extreme negligence, such as falling objects.
Even though res ipsa loquitur seems very cut and dry, there are still issues with its application that can raise questions at trial. The main issue is whether it creates a presumption of negligence that must be rebutted by the defendant. In addition, there is an open question of whether this is just a rule of evidence or a test of negligence on its own.
One question that you may have is whether res ipsa loquitur tramples of the defendant’s legal right of a presumption of innocence. Usually, the defendant is presumed to have used due care unless proven otherwise. However, the court does factor this in when determining whether to apply res ipsa loquitur. It is only after they go through each of the elements and the facts seem very bad for the defendant that it will give a jury instruction.
The Defendant Still Gets Their Say
Even if the jury has received a res ipsa loquitur instruction, the defendant will also get their say and defend against the accusation. While res ipsa loquitur creates a strong presumption, the defendant is allowed to have their say.
Here are some of the defenses that they can use at trial:
- The defendant did not act unreasonably in the events surrounding the accident.
- The defendant did not have control over the instrument that caused the injury.
- The plaintiff caused their own injury by acting unreasonably.
However, once the res ipsa loquitur instruction is given, there is usually a presumption of negligence that the defendant must rebut. They would need to show why they should not be held legally liable for the accident as opposed to your showing they should be. You have already carried your own burden of proof when the judge has instructed the jury.
The Damages That You Can Receive When You Prove Liability
If you can prove your case through the use of res ipsa loquitur, you can still receive the same damages as in an ordinary negligence case, including:
- Lost wages
- Pain and suffering
- Medical costs
- Emotional trauma
- Costs of rehabilitation
- Loss of enjoyment of life
- Wrongful death damages, if someone has died
In addition, the kind of negligence in a res ipsa loquitur case is usually so bad that you may make a case for punitive damages. These are only usually assessed when the defendant’s conduct is so bad that the jury needs to send a message by levying a harsh punishment. In a case where the surgeon has left a sponge inside a patient, your personal injury could make a very strong case why the judge or jury should award you with punitive damages.
How a Personal Injury Attorney Can Help You in a Res Ipsa Loquitur Case
Even when the facts seem so bad that it would be inconceivable to imagine that the defendant would not be held responsible, you still need a personal injury attorney on your side. First, the defendant may still try to find a way to argue that you were responsible for your injuries. Even if your case seems open-and-shut, you still need evidence and someone to present it to the court. Many responsible parties will still not admit liability and settle the case, even if the evidence against them is very strong.
Second, liability is only a part of your case. You would also need to make your case for damages to the jury, and the defendant may dispute your claims. Personal injury awards can vary greatly, even based on the same facts. Therefore, you need someone to help establish the extent of your injuries. Your personal injury case is your only opportunity to recover financially for your injuries, and you do not want to run the risk of recovering too little for your injuries.
Finally, nothing is ever really final until a judge and jury have their own look at the evidence. For example, this doctrine is not very well-suited for things such as slip and fall cases where there are fact-specific determinations. The lesson to learn is that things are not blatantly obvious until a judge agrees with your characterization. However, in theory, there are some types of negligence that are so bad that a judge will see things your way quickly.
This is only one example of the many complex legal issues that can arise in personal injury claims. Always seek help from an experienced personal injury attorney.