Res Ipsa Loquitur
Res ipsa loquitur is Latin for “the thing speaks for itself.” This doctrine allows a plaintiff to create an inference of a defendant’s negligence absent direct evidence. Ultimately, the plaintiff must present evidence in which a jury could infer that the situation was caused by the negligent act of another.
Typically, a plaintiff bears the burden of establishing all of the traditional elements of negligence. However, when a plaintiff utilizes the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, he or she need only prove three components:
(1) the accident ordinarily does not occur absent negligence;
(2) the accident was caused by an instrumentality within the defendant’s exclusive control; and
(3) the accident was not caused by an act or omission of the plaintiff.
The first element of res ipsa loquitur requires evidence that the accident does not ordinarily occur absent negligence. It is applicable only when the circumstances tend to show that the resulting occurrence would not have happened if proper care was exercised by the tortfeasor. The most classic examples of such scenarios taught in law school include a piano falling from a window or a sponge being left inside of a patient following surgery. More likely than not, it can be safe to infer that these two scenarios usually do not occur absent negligence. However, the plaintiff must still establish the following two elements.
The second element requires that the accident be caused by an instrumentality within the defendant’s exclusive control. The plaintiff is not required to exclude every conceivable alternate cause of the accident but must simply demonstrate that no intervening force or third party had control over the instrumentality and/or did not contribute to the accident. The plaintiff must show that only the defendant had control over the instrumentality, and that his control was exerted at the time of the alleged negligence. So, as long as the piano or the sponge was within the defendant’s exclusive control, and no third party or intervening force had control over the objects, then the plaintiff would be successful in establishing this element.
Maryland’s appellate courts have established that the defendant’s exclusive control did not exist when the instrumentalities involved were available for public use, in common areas, or were controlled by multiple parties.
Lastly, the third element requires that the accident was not caused by the plaintiff’s own act or omission.
Establishing the above three elements of res ipsa loquitur generates a permissible inference of the defendant’s negligence. Ultimately, the jury determines whether to draw that inference from the evidence presented. However, if the plaintiff fails to present evidence satisfying all three elements of the doctrine, then a directed verdict for the defendant is proper. Moreover, res ipsa loquitur is not available to plaintiffs whose case requires expert testimony on complex issues of fact.
Res ispa loquitur has been applicable in Maryland in a select few fact patterns, including falling objects, single-vehicle accidents, exploding bottles, food or drink container impurities, stairway collapse, and a car rolling downhill after being parked.
District of Columbia v. Wayne Singleton, et al. was a single-vehicle accident case in Maryland in which the plaintiff was a passenger on a bus and was injured after the bus veered off the roadway, went airborne, and struck a tree. In this case, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the defendant because the plaintiff failed to establish all three elements of res ipsa loquitur. The plaintiff, who was sleeping, was awoken as the bus went airborne. At trial, the plaintiff invoked the res ipsa loquitur doctrine. However, the court ruled that he failed to establish the second element- that the defendant had exclusive control over the instrumentality. The plaintiff did not offer any evidence to disprove the fact that a third party or intervening force may have caused the bus to leave the roadway and cause the accident.
Overall, res ipsa loquitur is an extremely helpful doctrine for plaintiffs when direct evidence of the defendant’s negligence is unavailable to them. However, the doctrine is immensely complex and may require the assistance of an experienced Maryland personal injury attorney. Dubo Law is equipped to assist our clients in pursuing all personal injury or malpractice actions, including res ipsa loquitur claims.