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What New Yorkers Need to Know About “Res Ipsa Loquitur”

Posted in Personal Injury on April 7, 2021

If you have been injured in an accident in New York, you may file a personal injury claim against the party who caused your injury. In most cases, you must prove the elements of negligence to win your personal injury case.

Negligence is the basis for most personal injury claims, including car accidents, medical malpractice, premises liability, and construction accidents. However, some personal injury cases are decided on the legal theory of res ipsa loquitur.

Negligence vs. Res Ipsa Loquitur

Negligence and res ipsa loquitur are both legal theories that are used to decide personal injury claims. The theories are very different and have different legal elements that you must prove. However, both legal theories can help you recover compensation for damages caused by an injury or accident.

Proving Negligence in a Personal Injury Case

Negligence is the failure to use the level of care that a reasonable person would have used in the same or similar circumstances.

For example, say an apartment complex knows that the third-floor steps are broken and missing a handrail. A reasonable person would repair the steps and install a handrail to avoid an accident or injury. The property owner could be negligent if someone is injured because he fails to fix the steps.

However, the victims would need to prove all four elements of negligence to recover compensation for damages.

The four elements of a negligence claim are:

  • Duty of care
  • Breach of the duty of care
  • Causation
  • Damages

The apartment owner has a duty of care to provide safe premises for tenants and visitors. Failing to repair the steps could be considered a breach of duty.

However, the accident victim must prove that the breach was a direct and proximate cause of the injury. In other words, had it not been for the broken step, the person would not have been injured.

The person must also prove they sustained damages. If they did not sustain damages, falling on the step would not result in negligence, and they would not receive compensation for a claim.

Proving a negligence claim requires actual evidence to support each of the four legal elements of negligence. If you do not have actual evidence that the breach caused the injury and you sustained damages, you lose your case.

However, you may not have direct or actual evidence of fault and liability. If not, res ipsa loquitur might give you the legal grounds to recover compensation for damages.

How Do You Use Res Ipsa Loquitur in a Personal Injury Case?

There are many Latin phrases used in the legal field, including res ipsa loquitur. The phrase means “the thing speaks for itself” in Latin.

In a personal injury case, res ipsa loquitur assumes that negligence occurred even though there is no actual or direct evidence of negligence.

The evidence is circumstantial. Yet, the circumstances point to only one logical conclusion. Someone must have been negligent for the event to have occurred.

The theory of res ipsa loquitur dates back to the decision in the 1863 case of Byrne vs. Boadle. A man was walking past a shop when he was struck by a barrel of flour from above. He sued the shop owner and claimed the theory of res ipsa loquitur.

There was no direct evidence that the shop owner or anyone else was negligent. So, he lost the case in the trial court. However, barrels do not drop out of the sky for no reason. The appellate court ruled that the barrel would not have fallen unless negligence was involved and ruled for Byrne.

A plaintiff can use res ipsa loquitur to establish negligence if there is no direct evidence of what caused their injuries.

However, to create the assumption of negligence through circumstantial evidence, the plaintiff must prove:

  • The incident would not have occurred without someone acting negligently
  • The defendant had direct and exclusive control of the factors that led to the incident
  • The plaintiff did not contribute to the cause of the injury or incident
  • The negligence presumed was within the duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff
  • The evidence presented in court rules out that any other party could have caused the plaintiff’s injuries

If the plaintiff can prove all of the above elements, res ipsa loquitur allows the jury members to infer negligence without direct evidence of a specific person’s negligence.

Jurors may then award damages based on the plaintiff’s claim. They may award compensation for economic damages, such as loss of income, medical bills, and other out-of-pocket financial losses. The award may also include compensation for non-economic damages, including physical pain & suffering, permanent impairments, and loss of enjoyment of life.

The types of damages and the value of the claim are handled the same way, regardless of whether the plaintiff proves the case by negligence or res ipsa loquitur.