When Negligence Is Obvious, It May Be Res Ipsa Loquitur
Sometimes accidents happen, and there is just no other explanation than negligence. In other words, there is no logical explanation for the happening; and no possible “excuse”; the only singular plausible explanation for the (often bizarre) event, is that someone did something wrong.
When that happens, there is a concept in the law called res ipsa loquitur. This funny sounding name actually is an important concept in personal injury law, and can make it easier for victims to recover compensation for injuries, when res ipsa loquitur happens.
Res Ipsa Examples
A classic and often cited example of res ipsa loquitur, is the example of a foreign object being left inside of someone’s body after surgery, or someone having the wrong body part amputated.
Another example may be something falling from a tall shelf, or a rooftop, onto someone below, causing injury.
Or, imagine that you open a soda can, and inside is a dead animal.
There are some commonalities in these examples. One is that the victim often has no idea how the accident happened, and no way of finding out—the surgery patient is asleep, the victim who was hit by the object did not stack the object on the high shelf in the first place, and the customer obviously had no role in packaging the soda.
The other commonality is that the Defendant had full control of the circumstances surrounding the accident. The surgeon had full control of the operation, just as the store had full control over what goes on the high shelves that customers can’t reach, and how those shelves are stacked.
And, of course, the other commonality is that these aren’t the kind of things that could ever happen, without someone being negligent. There is no “non-negligent” explanation for these kinds of things occurring.
Presumption of Negligence
In both examples, the victim can’t prove negligence, because the victim had no control over the situation, and no way of knowing how the accident happened.
But that’s OK, because the victim only has to prove that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies, and if that is proven, the victim need not prove anything else, other than damages. Showing res ipsa provides a presumption of negligence; the victim doesn’t need to prove the negligence at all.
That presumption then puts the burden of proof on the Defendant. Unlike in a normal case, where the victim has to prove his or her case first (that is, prove the legal elements of a negligence claim), in a res ipsa loquitur case, it is the Defendant that has to show that it was not negligent by overcoming the presumption of negligence that’s created by res ipsa loquitur.