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What Is the Res Ipsa Loquitur Doctrine and What Role Does It Play in Personal Injury Lawsuits?

Photo of man holding his head after a flower pot fell on him. Another man is running to him to see if he needs help.

In Latin, “Res Ipsa Loquitur” means “the thing speaks for itself.” In other words, and legally speaking, the doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur posits that certain events could not occur without a negligent act, even if the act itself is unknown. Plaintiffs invoke Res Ipsa Loquitur in personal injury cases where injury occurred but the exact nature of the negligent act that led to the injuries is unknown.

The doctrine was first invoked in England during the mid-1800s when a man walking down the street was hit in the head by a flower pot that fell from a window. Even though there was no evidence that the owner of the window acted negligently, England’s highest Courts determined that the accident could not have occurred but for a negligent act. Thus, the Court ruled in favor of the Plaintiff. Under New York Law, Res Ipsa Loquitur can only be invoked in a personal injury case once its three elements are met.

These three elements are:

    1. The event was the kind that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone’s negligence;
    2. The event is caused by an instrumentality within the exclusive control of the defendant at the time of the negligent act; and
    3. The event must not be due to any voluntary action or contribution by the plaintiff.

In other words, in order to satisfy the first element of Res Ipsa Loquitur, the plaintiff must prove that the incident which resulted in their injury could not have occurred without a negligent act. In the above case, the negligent act would be whatever caused the flower pot to fall. To satisfy the second element, the “instrumentality,” which is the flower pot, must be under the total or “exclusive” control of the defendant. This is a requirement for Res Ipsa Loquitor, because the Court is inferring the defendant was negligent. If the defendant did not have full control over the instrumentality and the negligent act is unidentifiable, it would be unreasonable to infer that the defendant committed a negligent act. The third of element of Res Ipsa Loquitur is simple enough; plaintiff must play no role in the event that caused injury.

If you are injured due to no fault of your own and are unsure how it happened, you might still be able to recover due to the doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur. Therefore, you should reach out to a personal injury attorney as soon as possible. Zalman Schnurman & Miner PC has over 30 years of experience in handling injury cases, including those invoking Res Ipsa Loquitur. If you would like a free consultation, please reach out to the firm as soon as possible.