What is Res Ipsa Loquitur?

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One day, a man walks down a public street minding his own business. As he passes a store that sells flour, a barrel of flour falls from a second-story loft and hits him in the head, causing significant damage. The plaintiff is unable to prove that the store owner breached his duty of care. Regardless, the court holds the store owner liable for negligence based on the legal theory of res ipsa loquitur. This theory presumes negligence because it infers negligence based on the nature of events. This is the case of Byrne v. Boadle from 1863, wherein an English Court inferred negligence and held the store owner responsible. Alabama courts also recognize the tort theory of res ipsa loquitur.

Note that res ipsa loquitur makes a rebuttable presumption of guilt, not a definitive determination of guilt. If a plaintiff successfully raises a res ipsa loquitur charge, the burden shifts to the defendant to prove that he was not negligent. In other words, this doctrine is burden-shifting but does not, by itself, produce a verdict.

The Doctrine

The observation that certain types of outcomes may be much more probative of unacceptable action than other types underlies the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. This 150-year-old doctrine, as outlined in the Restatement (Second) of Torts, permits a finding of negligence 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.” It allows an inference of negligence where the plaintiff has neither alleged nor proven that the defendant acted in a specifically negligent manner.

Examples of other applications of res ipsa loquitur are when a surgical team leaves a sponge or surgical instrument in a patient’s body, when a car runs off an empty road, and when a vehicle hits escaped livestock on a public street. A jury may find the doctor, driver, or livestock owner liable without knowing anything more about the events in question due to the nature of the circumstances.

Alabama’s Version of Res Ipsa Loquitur

The Alabama Supreme Court outlined a three-part test to determine suitability for the application of this doctrine. The three prongs are:

  • The defendant must have had full management and control of the instrumentality that caused the injury or damage;
  • The circumstances must be such that according “to common knowledge and the experience of mankind” the accident could not have happened if those having control of the management had not been negligent;
  • The injury resulted from the accident.

By applying this doctrine, a plaintiff injured in an accident can be successful without demonstrating that the defendant satisfied all elements of negligence. If you are driving behind a truck on I-65 and the trucks cargo unloads onto the asphalt and causes and accident, the plaintiff may only need to invoke res ipsa loquitur to hold the truck driver responsible.

If you have been hurt in accident, contact a law firm experienced, knowledgeable, and skilled in recovery for its clients. Contact the law firm of Parkman White.

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