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What Is Res Ipsa Loquitur?

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What Is Res Ipsa Loquitur?

Res ipsa loquitur is a time-honored legal doctrine allowing a court to infer negligence from the nature of an accident or injury without any direct proof. 

While res ipsa loquitur will not win a negligence claim all by itself, establishing it can greatly increase your chances of winning. 

The Elements of a Typical Negligence-Based Personal Injury Claim

To win an ordinary negligence claim, you need to prove four facts:

  • The defendant owed you a duty of care;
  • The defendant failed to meet the demands of that duty:
  • You suffered an injury; and
  • The defendant’s failure was the proximate cause of your injury.

Ordinary negligence is the basis of most personal injury cases.

Examples of Typical Negligence Cases

Consider the following cases of ordinary negligence:

  • Your electrician carelessly repaired an electrical appliance, thereby causing a fire that burned you.
  • A driver runs a red light, colliding with your motorbike and thereby breaking your leg.
  • A supermarket fails to clean up a spill, causing you to slip, fall, and break your hip.
  • A homeowner fails to repair a broken stairway railing, and you fall down the stairs.
  • A manufacturer sells a defective microwave oven that catches fire, causing you to suffer smoke inhalation.

In simpler terms, a person is negligent when they fail to act as a reasonable person would in the same situation.

Typical Examples of Res Ipsa Loquitur Claims

Following are some typical res ipsa loquitur claims. See if you can notice the difference between a res ipsa loquitur claim and an ordinary negligence claim:

  • A surgical instrument is left inside a patient’s body after surgery
  • A pedestrian walking next to a skyscraper is hit by a falling bucket.
  • A shopper is injured by falling merchandise in a store.
  • A shopper slips and falls due to a wet floor inside a building without warning signs.
  • A patient suffers burns from a heating pad during a medical procedure.
  • A parked car and its occupant are struck by construction debris without evident cause, except for the car’s proximity to a construction site.

All of these scenarios can generate res ipsa loquitur claims. What do they all have in common? 

  • The accident was of a type that normally doesn’t occur unless somebody was negligent. Surgical instruments do not grow inside people’s bodies, for example, and buckets do not develop the ability to fly in the vicinity of skyscrapers 
  • The instrumentality that caused the injury was under the defendant’s exclusive control. If it was under the control of a company employee, then it was probably legally under the control of the company. This state of affairs suggests negligence was involved and that it was attributable to the company or the employee.
  • The injury did not result from the victim’s own misconduct.

These types of scenarios strongly suggest negligence on the part of whoever controlled the instrumentality that caused the injury. This likelihood remains even in the absence of direct proof. 

The Reversal of the Burden of Proof

Establishing res ipsa loquitur doesn’t entitle you to compensation – not right away, anyway. What res ipsa loquitur does is shift the burden of proof from you to the defendant. 

Originally, it was up to you to prove the defendant liable. Once you establish res ipsa loquitur, it is up to the defendant to prove they are not liable. 

A Preponderance of the Evidence

Whoever bears the burden of proof, the victim or the defendant, must prove their claim by “a preponderance of the evidence.” In other words, on a “more likely than not” basis. This is one of the easiest burdens of proof to satisfy.

Defenses Against Res Ipsa Loquitur

Following are examples of the most common defenses against a claim of res ipsa loquitur:

  • Contributory fault: You were partly at fault for your own injuries due to your own negligence 
  • The defendant did not control the instrumentality that caused the injury.
  • An intervening act by a third party or an unforeseeable event was the actual cause of your injury, not the defendant’s negligence. This exonerates the defendant even if they were negligent.
  • The defendant was not negligent at all. Proving this might involve showing adherence to industry standards or regulations.
  • Assumption of risk: The activity was inherently dangerous (skydiving, for example), and the victim knowingly assumed the risk.
  • The accident was not of the type that ordinarily occurs due to negligence (by presenting evidence or arguments that such incidents can and do happen without negligence).

Other defenses might also apply, such as the expiration of the statute of limitations deadline.

A Miami Personal Injury Lawyer’s Assistance Can Make All the Difference

Establishing res ipsa loquitur with admissible evidence can be a lot more difficult than it looks. If your claim is reasonably large, you are likely to come out way ahead financially by hiring an experienced Miami personal injury lawyer – and this is true even after you pay your legal fees.