Understanding “Res Ipsa Loquitur”

Understanding “Res Ipsa Loquitur”Understanding “Res Ipsa Loquitur” In many personal injury cases, determining whether a party is liable for another’s injuries because of negligence can be difficult. In some cases, it may not be clear exactly how the injury was caused, or perhaps the injured party may have contributed to the accident, which can make determining liability even harder. When two parties are at fault, the fine line of who is more at fault is a blurry one at best. In some situations, however, the cause of the injury is so clear that there can be no mistake that someone’s negligence caused the accident. This is when the doctrine of “res ipsa loquitur” comes into play.

Understanding “Res Ipsa Loquitur” in Negligence Cases

Res ipsa loquitur, commonly referred to as “res ipsa” for short, is a Latin term that means “the thing speaks for itself.” This legal doctrine applies when the accident is the type of accident that would not occur unless the defendant was negligent in some way and all other possible causes of the injury have been eliminated, including the injured party’s own conduct. In such cases, a judge or jury is allowed to infer that the defendant was legally negligent, even if there is no specific finding as to the cause of the accident. Proving res ipsa does require that the plaintiff can prove that the object or device caused his or her injury was under the exclusive control of the defendant. Much of this may sound theoretical and difficult to understand, so examples are the best way to truly understand the concept of res ipsa.

What Are Some Examples of When Res Ipsa Would Apply?

A classic example, often used to help law students understand this doctrine, is the story of a ton of bricks falling out of a window of a factory and injuring a pedestrian on the sidewalk below. The plaintiff (the injured party) can clearly prove that he has suffered an injury, but it may not be clear how the defendant’s actions caused the injury because there is no explanation as to why the ton of bricks fell out of the window. Regardless, the bricks were in the defendant’s factory and therefore under the defendant’s exclusive control, and under no circumstance should they have fallen from a window, thus the accident could not have occurred but for some type of negligence committed by the defendant (the factory owner).

Another common example is if a person has a routine surgical operation, goes home, and experiences prolonged pain only to find that a scalpel has been left inside her abdomen. In this case, there is no reason other than negligence that a scalpel would have been left in her body after an operation. Even though she was unconscious at the time of the incident and therefore could not have seen exactly how it happened, the injury would not have occurred unless someone was negligent, and because the scalpel was under the control of the surgeon, she would be able to use a res ipsa loquitur claim.

When Does Res Ipsa Not Apply?

Before res ipsa can apply, all other potential causes of the injury must be evaluated and eliminated as possible causes. If the defendant can prove that the plaintiff was partially responsible for the accident or that some act other than the defendant’s negligence caused the injury, then the judge or jury will not be able to use res ipsa to presume the defendant was negligent and therefore liable for the injury.

Need More Help?

If you or a loved one has been injured and you believe another party’s negligence caused your accident, contact New Bedford personal injury attorney Paul Santos to determine whether you may have negligence claim and be entitled to compensation. Call 508-996-0941 or contact me online for a free initial consultation today.

Paul Santos


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