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What Is Res Ipsa Loquitur?

res ipsa loquitur written on the keyboard button

The practice of law involves a lot of obscure Latin phrases. One of the more intriguing legal concepts is known as “res ipsa loquitur,” and it just might be the saving grace when you know that a personal injury defendant must have negligently caused your injuries but you can’t quite prove how it happened. Continue reading to learn about this traditional legal doctrine, and call the knowledgeable NY personal injury attorneys at Dupée & Monroe in Goshen for advice and representation after a New York slip and fall, car accident, or other negligence-based incident.

Defining Res Ipsa Loquitur

Res ipsa loquitur is a long-standing but lesser-known theory of negligence. Res ipsa loquitur is a Latin phrase that translates to “the thing speaks for itself.” In the context of a personal injury lawsuit, the concept of res ipsa loquitur allows the judge or jury to infer that the defendant must have been negligent in some fashion based on what ultimately happened, even if the plaintiff cannot directly prove what the defendant actually did that was negligent.

The classic example of res ipsa loquitur involves a plaintiff injured by a falling barrel of flour. The barrel fell from a shop window several stories above while the plaintiff was walking along the street. The plaintiff points to the fact that the barrel was owned by the defendant and located in the defendant’s store. The plaintiff cannot prove exactly what happened, but it’s clear the barrel was in the defendant’s care and control before it fell, and that someone must have done something wrong (negligent) to cause the barrel to fall from the window.

Even if the plaintiff cannot establish exactly what the defendant did that was negligent, barrels do not simply fall from the sky without someone making a mistake. The plaintiff uses the theory of res ipsa loquitur to allow the court to infer the defendant must have been negligent via circumstantial evidence, even if the plaintiff lacks direct proof as to precisely how the defendant was negligent.

Using Res Ipsa Loquitur in a Personal Injury Case

Res ipsa loquitur is still utilized in personal injury cases today. A plaintiff can use the theory when they otherwise lack direct proof of negligence, but it’s clear that someone must have been negligent and that someone was the defendant.

In order to apply the theory of res ipsa loquitur in a New York personal injury case, the plaintiff must be able to prove all the following:

  • The incident is of a kind that would normally not have occurred unless someone had acted negligently
  • The factors leading to the incident were under the direct and exclusive control of the defendant
  • The plaintiff did not contribute to the cause of the incident by way of their own negligence
  • The negligence to be presumed is within the duty of care owed to the plaintiff
  • The evidence provided in court rules out alternate parties who could have caused the plaintiff’s injuries

Even if the plaintiff proves all of the above elements, the jury or judicial factfinder is usually permitted to, but not required to, draw an inference of negligence. Moreover, the defendant can rebut the inference of negligence with their own evidence showing, for example, that the plaintiff was contributorily negligent, or that some third party or interceding factor led to the plaintiff’s injuries.

If you need help getting medical treatment and compensation for the harm you suffered after a serious accident, or if you are pursuing a negligence-based claim in New York, contact the thorough and successful Goshen personal injury lawyers of Dupée & Monroe for a free consultation by calling 845-294-8900.

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