Res Ipsa Loquitur: Your Injury Speaks For Itself

Res Ipsa Loquitur

Res ipsa loquitur is a Latin phrase that literally translates to “the thing itself speaks”. For purposes of U.S. personal injury cases, however, this literal interpretation has been slightly modified to “the thing speaks for itself.”

The thing in question is the accident and its cause. Generally, when you sue someone you believe negligently caused your injuries, you must prove the following five things:

  1. That the defendant owed you a duty of care
  2. That he or she negligently breached that duty
  3. That you suffered an injury because of that breach
  4. That the breach was the main or only cause of your injury, usually phrased as the proximate cause thereof
  5. That your injury resulted in your compensable economic and non-economic damages that the defendant should pay

Res ipsa loquitur speaks to both breach and causation. Instead of having to prove a specific breach, specific cause and specific negligence, the very fact that the accident occurred and the defendant had control over whether it not it could happen speaks for itself. In other words, res ipsa allows you to use circumstantial evidence, rather than direct evidence, to prove your case.

It’s often called the common sense or common knowledge approach. Res ipsa allows the jury to make a reasonable inference of negligence based on the circumstances of your case. They do this by determining that nothing other than the defendant’s negligence could possibly have caused your accident and therefore your injuries.

Res Ipsa Loquitur Examples

Examples of res ipsa accidents include the following:

  • Two airplanes, railway trains or subway trains collide
  • Your surgeon leaves a sponge or clamp inside your body
  • Your tire explodes while you’re driving down the street
  • The elevator in which you’re riding suddenly drops down several floors before coming to an abrupt and jarring stop
  • Your airbag explodes during a crash
  • A flower pot or some other object falls on you from an upper ledge while you’re walking down the sidewalk in front of a multi-story building
  • The scaffolding on which you’re working gives way, plunging you to the ground
  • The weed killer you use on your lawn gives you cancer
  • A medical device implanted in your body malfunctions and nearly kills you before it can be removed
  • Your neighbor’s dog appears out of nowhere and attacks you as you’re walking down the sidewalk
  • The water heater your contractor installed sufficiently leaks and floods your house one day while you’re at work 
  • An Amtrak train jumps the tracks, injuring its passengers
  • A large, heavy container of water falls off the back of the truck in front of you, hitting your car and causing you to lose control of it and thereby suffering injuries

Circumstantial Evidence

By definition, circumstantial evidence is evidence that allows a judge or jury to reasonably infer the truth of a certain allegation. In a personal injury lawsuit, you may not have any direct evidence that conclusively proves your case. For instance, in a surgical malpractice case, you undoubtedly were under anesthesia and unconscious when someone left a clamp or sponge in your body. You, therefore, have no idea which surgical team member committed the act of negligence. Nevertheless, the fact that a later X-ray discovered the clamp or sponge speaks for itself. Someone in that operating room committed negligence that caused you injury.

Res Ipsa Loquitur Elements

The precise things you must prove in a res ipsa case vary from state to state. However, in general, you must prove the following:

  • The type of accident that caused your injury was unusual and doesn’t normally happen but for someone’s negligence
  • Your evidence shows that neither you nor anyone other than the defendant caused the accident.
  • The type of negligence involved breached the duty of care that the plaintiff owed you.

As in any personal injury lawsuit, your burden of proof in a res ipsa case is that of a preponderance of the evidence. In other words, your evidence must establish that it’s more likely than not that the defendant’s negligence caused your accident and resulting injuries.

Rebuttable Presumption

Keep in mind that just because you establish res ipsa loquitur doesn’t mean that you automatically win your personal injury case. Res ipsa is known as a rebuttable presumption, meaning that once you establish it, the burden shifts to the defendant to show that the presumption fails to apply in this particular case.

In other words, there are defenses to res ipsa, including the following:

  • The defendant didn’t really owe you a duty of care.
  • He or she did not have exclusive control over what happened.
  • Your own negligence was instrumental in causing your injuries.

Regardless of how a defendant seeks to rebut the res ipsa case you established, his or her burden of proof is the same as yours; i.e., a preponderance of the evidence. Consequently, if the defendant seeks to attack the presumption on sole responsibility grounds, he or she may attempt to present evidence that puts enough doubt in the minds of the jurors that they conclude that some action or lack of action on your part was at least 51% responsible for your injuries.

Why You Need an Experienced Local Personal Injury Lawyer

As stated, statutes addressing res ipsa loquitur requirements vary from state to state. So regardless of how self-evident you think the facts surrounding your injury are to show that only the act or failure to act of the person you want to sue could possibly have caused your injuries, you still need the advice, counsel and representation of an experienced local personal injury lawyer.

He or she can assess your case and determine whether or not res ipsa applies. If not, he or she likely can suggest a different theory under which to bring your personal injury lawsuit. In addition, he or she may well think of other possible defendants than the primary person you believe caused your injuries.

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