What You Need to Know About “Res Ipsa Loquitur”
May 30, 2023 | Sagi Shaked | Personal Injury
“Res ipsa loquitur” is a rule of evidence used in personal injury cases. It is a Latin phrase that means “the thing speaks for itself.” Res ipsa loquitur offers injured victims an indirect way of proving negligence liability for an accident that caused a personal injury. It is a substitute for the ordinary state of affairs in which you can prove your claim directly.
Here is an example. If you are walking under a building under construction and a hammer falls out of the sky and hits you, can you prove that a construction worker dropped the hammer? If all of the construction workers are employees of the same company, do you have to prove which worker dropped the hammer before you can sue the company? No. You can simply use res ipsa loquitur to establish that one of the construction workers must have dropped the hammer.
The Legal Elements of a Traditional Negligence Claim
Most personal injury claims are based on negligence, including cases involving:
- Car accidents
- Motorcycle accidents
- Truck accidents
- Pedestrian accidents
- Slip and falls
- Product defects
- Medical malpractice
- And many more
Negligence cases arise when a person or business fails to exercise reasonable care in a certain situation and injures another person.
To win a typical negligence claim, you must prove every one of the following four legal elements:
- The defendant owed you a duty of care. Every adult, including construction workers, owes everyone else the duty to act reasonably to avoid injuring someone else.
- The defendant breached their duty of care. (such as by dropping a hammer from a building). Duty plus breach equals negligence.
- You suffered a physical injury. If your physical injury caused you emotional distress, you can seek compensation for emotional distress as well. Nevertheless, there must be an underlying physical injury.
- The defendant’s negligence caused your physical injury.
You must prove each of these four elements to win your negligence claim. Lacking proof of any one of them will defeat your claim.
The Elements of Res Ipsa Loquitur
It is easy to see the difficulty of proving negligence in the traditional way when a hammer falls from a building, for example, since nobody saw the perpetrator drop the hammer (nobody who’s talking, anyway). In this situation, it is virtually impossible to even identify the individual who dropped the hammer. The employee or business will likely not admit they were negligent.
Such circumstances call for the use of res ipsa loquitur as an alternative means of establishing liability.
Following are the legal elements of res ipsa loquitur:
- An injury accident occurs. A scalpel is left inside your stomach after surgery, for example.
- The circumstances of the accident indicate that it could not have happened unless someone was negligent. Since scalpels don’t spontaneously appear inside of people’s bodies, someone must have left it there.
- The defendant was in complete control of the instrument or item that caused the accident. Although this element might not apply to every member of the medical team that performed the surgery, it might apply to the hospital itself.
- There was no contributory fault on your part. If you share fault for your accident, you may not be able to use res ipsa loquitur. Your own comparative negligence would be impossible if you were under general anesthesia at the time.
At trial, it is the jury that must decide whether the foregoing elements of res ipsa loquitur apply. If they do, an injured party will be able to hold the defendant liable for their damages.
Examples of Scenarios That Might Call For the Use of Res Ipsa Loquitur
Following are descriptions of only a few of a multitude of possible scenarios that might call for the application of res ipsa loquitur:
- You find the body of a dead mouse inside a can of food you bought at the grocery store.
- You wake up from surgery to find that your left kidney has been removed, when it was your right kidney that needed removal.
- A hospital mistakes you for another patient and performs that patient’s surgery on you instead.
- You suffer facial scarring after your cigarette lighter explodes.
- You suffer catastrophic injury when your automobile airbag fails to deploy during an accident.
Res ipsa loquitur scenarios are so common in product liability scenarios that the Florida legislature passed a “no-fault” product liability law. Proving the existence of a product defect substitutes for proving fault directly.
An Experienced Miami Personal Injury Lawyer Can Help You Prove Your Case
Most cases do not apply res ipsa loquitur. If your case exhibits a fact pattern that suggests you should rely on res ipsa loquitur, a skilled personal injury lawyer will recognize the opportunity immediately. Schedule a free initial consultation with a seasoned personal injury lawyer as soon as you can to learn about your options.