What New Yorkers Need to Know about Res Ipsa Loquitur

Abstract: Res ipsa cases, also known as "speak for themselves" cases apply when one person's negligent act clearly leads to the injury of an innocent bystander. This can have many applications in New York, and can lead to compensation for victims.

Where the actual or specific cause of an accident is unknown, under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur (it speaks for itself) a jury may in certain circumstances infer negligence merely from the happening of an event and the defendant's relation to it. Res ipsa loquitur simply recognizes what we know from our everyday experience: that some accidents by their very nature would ordinarily not happen without negligence. In the typical res ipsa loquitur case, the jury can reasonably draw upon past experience common to the community for the conclusion that the adverse event generally would not occur absent negligent conduct.

While potentially available in any type of case, res ipsa loquitur is particularly applicable in medical malpractice actions in which an injury to an anesthetized patient occurs during surgery in an area remote from the operative site. To rely on res ipsa loquitur, however, the plaintiff need not conclusively eliminate the possibility of all other causes of the injury.

Res Ipsa basics

In law school, the concept of res ipsa loquitur is explained with a very old court case, Byrne v. Boadle. In this case, Mr. Byrne was walking down the street when he was struck and seriously injured by a falling barrel of flour. A witness explained that he saw the barrel fall from Mr. Boadle's window, but there was no additional evidence to establish that Mr. Boadle or his employees acted in such a way that would make the barrel fall.

The legal team for Mr. Byrne argued that no additional evidence was necessary. The type of accident alone was enough to establish that the defendant, Mr. Boadle, was negligent. Ultimately, the court agreed and held Mr. Boadle accountable for the victim's injuries.

This led to the establishment of three basic elements for a res ipsa case:

  • Type of accident. The accident that led to the injuries must be the type that would not occur in the absence of someone's negligence. In the flour case, most people accept that things do not just fall out of windows unless someone did something negligent in the first place.
  • Exclusive Control. The injury must be caused by an agency or instrumentality within the exclusive control of the defendant. Control is not an absolutely rigid concept and, therefore, a prima facie case is made out by evidence of possession and control of such a character that the probability that the negligent act was caused by someone other than the defendant is so remote that it is fair to infer that defendant is the negligent party. The exclusive control requirement is thus subordinated to its general purpose, that of indicating that it probably was the defendant's negligence which caused the accident.
  • No contribution from victim. The injury must not have been due to any voluntary action or contribution on the part of the plaintiff. Going back to the flour barrel case, the victim established that he did not contribute to the accident. He was simply walking alongside the building. If, however, he had been walking in an area marked as dangerous this element may not be satisfied and his res ipsa case could have failed. Any act attributed to the plaintiff will not prevent the plaintiff from employing res ipsa loquitur unless the act contained the element of fault.

It is enough that the evidence supporting the three conditions afford a rational basis for concluding that 'it is more likely than not' that the injury was caused by defendant's negligence. Stated otherwise, all that is required is that the likelihood of other possible causes of the injury 'be so reduced that the greater probability lies at defendant's door'. Res ipsa loquitur thus involves little more than application of the ordinary rules of circumstantial evidence to certain unusual events, and it is appropriately charged when, upon a commonsense appraisal of the probative value of the circumstantial evidence the inference of negligence is justified.

In malpractice cases, numerous courts throughout this State have agreed that res ipsa is particularly applicable where the plaintiff's claimed injury is remote from the site of the operative procedure and occurred while he was in an anesthetized state or recovering from the effects of anesthesia (such as a burn on the arm during back surgery). In these situations, the victim may not have to conclusively eliminate all other possibilities for injury. The fact that he or she was in this situation may be sufficient to establish a case.

Res ipsa applications in New York

In addition to medical errors, res ipsa could play many roles in a New Yorker's life. Similar to the flour factor accident above, those walking near construction sites could face similar injuries. If the victim is in an area that is not marked as dangerous, res ipsa may apply.

These are just a few examples of situations where res ipsa could apply. If you believe you were the victim of another's negligence, contact an experienced New York personal injury lawyer to discuss your case and possible options for legal recourse and compensation.

Keywords: negligence personal injury