Legal Word of the Day
Res Ipsa Loquitur
Entry: Res Ipsa Loquitur
Pronunciation: race – ip – suh – loh – kwi – ter
Definition: a rebuttable presumption that that a person’s injury would not have occurred but for the negligence of another under that other person’s exclusive control
Res ipsa loquitur is a Latin term that literally means "the thing speaks for itself." The term is generally used in a civil tort liabitly context when someone is injured by another. For example, an injured person, i.e. plaintiff, files a civil lawsuit against the defendant for negligence. Under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, the plaintiff argues two main points including that (i) the accident would not have occurred but for the negligence of the defendant and (ii) the instrumentality or condition causing the injury was under the defendant's exclusive control.

Under civil tort law, there are generally 4 main elements that must be proven which include (i) the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff, (ii) the defendant breached that duty, (iii) which caused (iv) damages to the plaintiff. So, in short, the 4 main elements are (i) duty, (ii) breach, (iii) causation, and (iv) damages. The plaintiff is essentially arguing that defendant is automatically liable for the first two element, i.e. (i) duty and (ii) breach, under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. Why is this important? Because now the plaintiff only has to prove the last two elements, i.e. (iii) causation and (iv) damages, which generally makes the plaintiff’s case easier to win.

Still, even if the plaintiff creates an inference of res ipsa loquitur, the defendant can rebut that presumption. If res ipsa loquitur is found it creates an inference of negligence and the burden usually will shift to the defendant to show otherwise. Still, the defendant can rebut that inference of negligence through other pertinent facts. In other words, the defendant can show that the event that gave rise to the accident had nothing to do with the defendant and/or was not within the defendant’s control or responsibility. Further, if the defendant offers no explanation, the court can direct a verdict for the plaintiff ( i.e. find for the plaintiff against the defendant) if the inference is strong enough that a reasonable jury could not reach any other conclusion.

So, what are some examples of res ipsa loquitor? Well, first keep in mind that each jurisdiction applies its own particular standards to determine negligence under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. With that said, here are some examples of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur:
  • scalpel left inside body of patient by doctor after patient had his/her appendix removed;
  • person hit from cargo falling from a crane;
  • person hit from pot plant walking past single two story apartment;
  • a ship in motion collides with an anchored ship;
  • one train hits another sitting train on a railway;
  • person bit or injured by a known-to-be vicious dog;
  • tc.
NOTE: Res ipsa loquitur is often confused with term prima facie. Please read the term prima facie for more details on its meaning and the difference between the two terms.

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