What is Res Ipsa Loquitur?
Most personal injury cases are based on negligence. When you get hurt and decide to pursue compensation, you have the burden of proving that you got hurt because someone else was careless. In order to do this, you’ll typically have to produce evidence to substantiate your claims.
What happens if there’s no evidence that another person was negligent, but you’re certain that they’re to blame? This is where the legal doctrine of res ipsa loquitur might be helpful. Here’s what you need to know.
First – What’s Negligence?
Negligence means that someone doesn’t take necessary care or precautions and someone else gets hurt. It’s the basis for most personal injury cases. To establish negligence, you’ll have to prove:
- The defendant owed you a duty of care
- This duty of care was breached, and
- You’ve been injured, as a result.
Proof of negligence requires evidence. For example, if you were injured in a car accident, proof that the other driver was texting or speeding would help to establish negligence. Or, if you’re hit by falling objects in a busy warehouse store, photographs of improperly loaded overhead supplies would help to do the same.
What Happens When There’s No Direct Evidence?
Sometimes accidents happen, but there’s no direct evidence to prove that it happened because someone was negligent. However, at the same time, the only logical explanation for your injuries is that someone was negligent. In that case, you might be able to invoke the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.
Res ipsa loquitur, when translated, means “the thing speaks for itself.” It’s used in cases when the only explanation for an accident (and resulting injuries) is negligence. In other words, the type of harm that occurred would only happen if someone were negligent.
Establishing Res Ipsa Loquitur
Res ipsa loquitur is established when you can prove:
- The accident is something that doesn’t generally happen unless someone is negligent;
- The injury was caused by something that was only under the defendant’s control; and
- You, the plaintiff, did not contribute to the accident.
How can you prove these things if there’s no evidence? It might be true that there’s no direct evidence of negligence. However, there might be circumstantial evidence to support your claim.
Circumstantial evidence “ tends to prove a fact by proving other events or circumstances which afford a basis for a reasonable inference of the occurrence of the fact at issue.” More simply put, circumstantial evidence allows you to infer that something is true, based on other relevant information.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re walking down the street next to a bakery when, all of a sudden, a barrel of flour falls out of a window. It strikes you, and you suffer some pretty serious injuries. There’s a witness who saw the barrel fall out of the window, but didn’t see why it fell. You file a lawsuit against the bakery, alleging that the owner is liable for your injuries. There’s no direct evidence that the owner caused your injury or was negligent in keeping its barrels of flour contained. However, there is literally no other explanation for why you got hurt.
This is a real case. This actually happened to someone back in 1863. It’s one of the first cases where a court held that negligence can be inferred when there is no other reasonable explanation for why an accident occurred.
Res Ipsa Loquitur Creates a Rebuttable Presumption of Negligence
You won’t automatically win your case just because you establish res ipsa loquitur. Rather, you’ll shift the burden to the defendant. That’s because res ipsa loquitur creates a rebuttable presumption fo negligence. The defendant is presumed to be negligent but has the opportunity to challenge your assertions.
If the defendant cannot successfully rebut the presumption, it will stand. Then you will be able to prevail and recover compensation from them.
You Still Have to Prove Harm or Injury
Let’s go back to the bakery. Say, this time around, the barrel falls but misses you. You have a good scare, but walk away unscathed. You would not be able to sue to the bakery successfully, because you lack one essential component of a personal injury claim – harm.
Remember, there are a few essential elements of a negligence claim:
- Causation, and
Res ipsa loquitur can be used to establish duty, breach, and causation. However, you still have to suffer a harm of some sort to prevail. Harm can be physical (e.g., broken bones, concussion, whiplash), financial (e.g., medical bills, cost of replacing or repairing property), or emotional (e.g., PTSD, depression, anxiety). Absent harm, there is no basis for filing a lawsuit.
It’s always best to consult with a personal injury lawyer if you’ve been injured in an accident. Your attorney can help you understand your rights and determine what courses of action might be available to you.