This article on ‘The Doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur: All You Need to Know‘ was written by Ananta Kashyap, an intern at Legal Upanishad.
In Latin, we say the object speaks for itself (res ipsa loquitur). The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur (or res is for short) is used as an evidentiary rule in personal injury law to create a rebuttable presumption of carelessness on the side of the defendant based on the plaintiff’s conduct.
In other words, if the plaintiff presents sufficient circumstantial evidence, the defendant will have the burden of proving that he or she was not negligent, even though the plaintiff would normally have to establish that the defendant behaved with a negligent state of mind via res ipsa loquitur.
Res Ipsa Loquitur: Background
The mere fact that an accident has taken place does not prove that it was caused by anyone’s carelessness. In a personal injury case, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that the defendant was negligent and that where there is no direct proof of the defendant’s carelessness, plaintiffs may nevertheless be able to prove negligence using plaintiffs may nevertheless be able to prove negligence via the use of circumstantial evidence.
Facts that suggest neglect as a likely explanation, rather than proving it directly, are what constitute circumstantial evidence. Because of this, judges and juries might infer carelessness based on circumstantial evidence and the common knowledge three ipsa, whitened. One sort of circumstantial evidence is known as res ipsa, and it may be used to show that the defendant’s carelessness led to an extraordinary incident that hurt the plaintiff.
This principle originated from a situation in which a pedestrian was hurt by a falling barrel of flour while passing a warehouse. Since there was no other plausible explanation for the plaintiff’s injuries, the plaintiff’s counsel contended at trial that the evidence proved the warehouse’s carelessness.
Since then, res ipsa has evolved to the point that courts and juries may use common sense to assess whether or not the defendant was negligent.
Laws relating to res ipsa loquitur differ in somewhat different jurisdictions because personal injury and evidence laws are set at the state level. However, a consensus has formed, and the vast majority of governments follow one standard interpretation of res ipsa.
For a jury to infer that the defendant’s carelessness caused the injury at issue, the plaintiff must satisfy the following three conditions under this paradigm for res ipsa:
- The evidence disproves that the plaintiff or a third party was responsible for causing the damage;
- The sort of carelessness at issue is within the limits of the defendant’s responsibility to the plaintiff;
- The incident does not ordinarily occur unless someone has behaved carelessly.
The Existence of Carelessness
As was previously noted, not every mishap can be traced back to carelessness on the part of another person. In contrast, there are some incidents that nearly never take place unless someone’s carelessness causes them.
It is commonly known that objects do not typically fall out of warehouse windows unless the window has been blocked or the products on the warehouse floor have not been kept correctly, as in the classic instance of the falling flour barrel. Something falling from a warehouse window is presumed to have been caused by negligence under the law.
The buck stops with the defendant
A res ipsa case’s second element is whether or not the defendant is wholly responsible for the harm. Recovery under res ipsa is barred if the plaintiff cannot show that the defendant’s carelessness was the primary cause of the harm.
The exclusive control of the particular instrumentality that produced the accident is frequently considered by states when determining whether the defendant’s carelessness caused the damage. If a surgeon accidentally leaves a sponge within a patient, the jury may infer that the surgeon’s carelessness caused the damage since he had exclusive control over the sponges during the procedure.
As the Plaintiff, you are entitled to reasonable care from Defendant
If the first two conditions are met, then the third must be met as well: the defendant must owe the plaintiff a duty of care to prevent the plaintiff’s damage. The defendant is not responsible for damages if the defendant had no responsibility to the plaintiff or if the plaintiff’s harm did not come within the extent of the defendant’s duty.
For instance, in many jurisdictions, property owners have no responsibility to safeguard trespassers from harm if they know or should have known that the hazard is present on the property. Therefore, res ipsa loquitur will not establish negligence if a trespasser is injured due to the defendant’s action or inaction, and the injury ordinarily would not occur in the absence of negligence. This is because the landowner never had any duty to prevent injury to the trespasser.
Analysis and Case Law
Roe v. Minister of Health
The plaintiff was hospitalized for minor surgery. Nupercaine spinal anaesthetics caused spastic paraplegia in the plaintiff. The court determined that phenol, which might have entered the ampoules via unseen faults, caused the injuries. The anaesthetics were kept in glass ampoules in phenol. The hospital’s negligence caused the harm, hence the plaintiff claimed Res Ipsa Loquitur. The court ruled that the theory does not apply and the defendant is not responsible since the harm or loss was unforeseeable. The defendants couldn’t prevent the harm. Unknown tort feasance was suspected.
Thus, an unnamed tortfeasor cannot be held accountable for unintentional offences.
A.S. Mittal and Anr v. State of U.P. and Ors.
The accused organized a Kharja eye camp with the Lions Club. 88 low-risk cataract operations were conducted throughout the camp. Aftercare caused several surgical patients to lose their vision. The government was sued for doctors’ negligence. Each victim got Rs 12500 in interim damages. The plaintiff won on Res Ipsa Loquitur because the treating doctors should have checked up with their patients following surgery.
In addition to an act, Res Ipsa Loquitur pertains to the improper procedure.
Achutrao Haribhau Khodwa and Others v. State of Maharashtra and Others
A public hospital sterilized the appellant’s kin. A mop left inside the patient caused pus and death. The appellant petitioned the Supreme Court to reconsider the High Court’s ruling and seek Rs 1,75,000 in compensation. The court found the defendants accountable under Res Ipsa Loquitur because they thought that leaving the towel caused the death and was within their power. The appellant failed to show medical negligence. Despite the notion that foreign bodies are often left in patients’ bodies after surgery, and the body resists them, leaving a mop was very reckless. It was overturned.
Res Ipsa Loquitur applies only to excessive negligence that causes considerable injury.
M.C. MEHTA v. Union of India
This Public Interest Litigation (known as “the Oleum gas leak case”) concerns the licensing of harmful enterprises in densely populated areas after the Oleum gas leak. Oleum gas leaked at Shriram Mills. Oleum, a hazardous gas, has killed many and gravely damaged others nearby. Res Ipsa Loquitur was used to put the mill owners on the hook for negligence as it was hard to verify.
According to the PIL, an industry must establish that it was not negligent in cases of injuries/damage caused by its hazardous activities. This proverb proved the defendants’ recklessness and secured their financial culpability for the injury. The court also found that hazardous businesses were assumed irresponsible and that the defendants had to prove otherwise.
The defendant presents their case in Res Ipsa Loquitur.
- The first stage in proving Res Ipsa Loquitur is determining whether or not the accident fits the typical pattern of those caused by carelessness.
- The second factor to consider is whether or not the defendant had exclusive authority over the dangerous device.
Res Ipsa Loquitur establishes a presumption of the fault where it exists.
There are several contexts in which Res Ipsa Loquitur may be useful. It is typically used in the United States for commercial aeroplanes or automobile accidents.
It is utilized in situations of medical negligence when it is impossible to determine which particular act of the hospital caused the damage and where the situation is always under the control of the hospitals.
The ancient adage “Res Ipsa Loquitur” is gaining popularity again in the contemporary world. It is used in situations involving industries, such as the M.C. Mehta v. Union of India case (also known as the oleum gas leak case), and more broadly in cases involving rights violations, aggravation, and the inability to demonstrate fault. The burden of proof to disprove carelessness thus lies with the defendants.
Primarily, it is employed in circumstances where it is clear that the defendant’s carelessness was the primary cause of the plaintiff’s harm. The burden of proof shifts to the defendant in such a situation, who must then show why he was not negligent.
- B. Lillywhite, The Extent of Res Ipsa Loquitur, 22(1) The Modern Law Review (2011)
- Jeffrey H. Kahn & John Lopatka, Res Ipsa Loquitur: Reducing Confusion or Creating Bias?, 108 Kentucky Law Journal (2020)
- Res Ipsa Loquitur and Evidence Law, Findlaw, 3 November 2022, available at: https://www.findlaw.com/injury/accident-injury-law/res-ipsa-loquitur.html