Res Ipsa Loquitur

What is res ipsa loquitur?

In a personal injury action, a plaintiff usually must prove that a defendant was negligent and that the defendant's negligence caused the plaintiff's injuries. However, in some cases, there is no direct evidence of negligence. For example, spectators are watching a basketball game in a high school gymnasium. The spectators are sitting on bleachers. The bleachers collapse, injuring the spectators. The spectators file a personal injury action against the high school, which built and maintained the bleachers. However, the spectators are unable to determine why the bleachers collapsed. Therefore, the spectators cannot prove that the school was negligent in any particular way. In such a case, a court may invoke the legal doctrine of "res ipsa loquitur."

"Res ipsa loquitur" is a Latin phrase that means, "the thing speaks for itself." The legal doctrine of res ipsa loquitur relieves a plaintiff of his burden of proving any specific act of negligence on the part of the defendant. In a res ipsa loquitur case, the facts warrant an inference of negligence. A judge will determine whether the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies.

What must a plaintiff prove in a res ipsa loquitur case?

In a res ipsa loquitur case, the plaintiff must prove that:

(1) the injury would not ordinarily have occurred in the absence of negligence;

(2) the instrumentality of the injury was under the exclusive control of the defendant; and

(3) the plaintiff did not contribute to the injury by his own negligence.

If the judge in the collapsing bleacher case decided to apply the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, then the spectators would not have to show any specific act of negligence on the part of the school. They would merely have to prove that bleachers do not ordinarily collapse in the absence of negligence, that the school had exclusive control of the bleachers, and that the spectators did not contribute to the collapse of the bleachers by their own negligence. If the spectators proved those three elements, then the school would have to prove that it was not negligent in order to win the case.

Copyright 2009 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.