Written by:Adv. Pooja Gupta

Res Ipsa Loquitur Doctrine in Tort Law

Introduction of the Res Ipsa Loquitur Doctrine in Tort Law: – The basic principle is as follows: When Res Ipsa Loquitur is being used, the onus of proof is suddenly shifted from the plaintiff to the defendant. In most cases, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant was guilty of negligence. The defendant bears the burden of proof. The defendant is generally assumed to be negligent, and he must demonstrate his innocence by proving that his activities didn’t result in the plaintiff’s injury. The defendant is the one who has provided the proof.

Res Ipsa Loquitur Meaning

The Latin term Res Ipsa Loquitur means “things speak for themselves.” At first glance, it appears to be a simple & straightforward maxim to grasp and apply. Furthermore, this isn’t as simple and clear as it actually appears.  “Res Ipsa Loquitur, sed quid in infernos dicetne?” (“It speaks for itself, but what does it say?”) is a famous joke among law school students.

Res Ipsa Loquitur& Evidence Law: Background

Accidents happen, and the mere occurrence of an accident does not always imply that it was caused by someone’s negligence. To prove negligence in a personal injury lawsuit, a plaintiff must present proof that the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injury. Even if no definitive proof of the defendant’s negligence, plaintiffs can establish dereliction of duty through circumstantial evidence.

Circumstantial evidence refers to facts that point to gross negligence as a rational conclusion rather than proving it explicitly. This allows judiciary & jury members to infer negligence relying on the circumstances of the case as well as common knowledge derived from human experience. Res ipsa is a form of circumstantial evidence that makes it possible for a reasonable and appropriate fact finder to determine that the defendant’s negligence resulted in an unusual situation that caused serious damage to the plaintiff.

This ideology originated from a case in which a plaintiff was injured by a falling flour barrel while walking by a warehouse. The plaintiff’s attorney argued at trial that the facts spoke for themselves and that the warehouse’s negligence was obvious because no other clarification could account for the plaintiff’s harm or injuries.

Res Ipsa, as it has evolved since then, actually allows judiciary and jury members to use common sense to ascertain whether or not a defendant act negligently.

Byrne v. Boadle

J.Baron Pollock first proposed the Res Ipsa Loquitur principle in Byrne v. Boadle.  A barrel of flour that had fallen down from a second-story window struck Byrne. The court assumed that a barrel of flour falling from a second-story window was sufficient proof of negligence.

Res Ipsa Loquitur Elements

Since personal injury and evidence laws are ascertained at the state level, the law concerning res ipsa loquitur differs slightly between states. Nonetheless, an overall consensus has emerged, and most states adhere to a single basic composition of res ipsa.

Before a judge can reasonably conclude that the defendant’s act caused the harm in question, the plaintiff must meet three prerequisites under the res ipsa principle:

  1. Normally, the event does not occur unless someone has been negligent;
  2. The evidence excludes the possibility that the plaintiff’s or a third party’s actions caused the harm or injury; and
  3. The form of negligence at issue is dependent on the defendant’s liability to the plaintiff.

Res ipsa loquitur has three conditions

The plaintiff has to prove three things to establish res ipsa loquitor negligence:

  1. The incident was unusual in that it’s not the result of gross negligence.
  2. It was actually caused by a defendant-controlled instrumentality.
  3. The plaintiff was not a supporter of the cause.

Analysis Of Case Laws

Roe v. Minister of Health

In this case, the plaintiff was hospitalised for minor surgical procedures. The plaintiff developed spastic paraplegia after receiving spinal anaesthetics via nupercaine injections. The anaesthetics were kept in glass ampoules immersed in a phenol solution, and the judge or jury concluded that the injuries caused by phenol, and could have entered the ampoules through flaws that were not accessible on visual evaluation.

The plaintiff argued that the Res Ipsa Loquitur doctrine should be applied against the hospital because the injury wouldn’t have even happened if the hospital had not been negligent. The court determined that the doctrine could not be applied and that the defendant could not be held liable because the incidence of the injury or damage was not predicted. And the actual cause of the injury was beyond the defendants’ control. It was described as an unidentified tort-feasance case.

Thus, in the particular instance of unintentional offences where the commission of the offence itself was unknown, the defendant can’t be held liable because it is an unknown tortfeasor.

Houghland v. R.R. LOW Ltd.

At the start of a journey, the plaintiff’s suitcase was left with the defendant’s bus-driver owner’s. When the bus broke down, the owner’s servants moved the luggage from the bus’s boot to another bus. The suitcase was nowhere to be found at the end of the journey. The plaintiff was entitled to damages, and the court determined that if the suitcase was lost, it was up to the defendant to prove that he was not guilty of negligence, which is nothing more than Res Ipsa Loquitur.

M.C.Mehta v. Union of India

This is a PIL(Public Interest Litigation) involving the institution of enterprises engaged in dangerous works in densely populated areas as a result of the Olium gas leak. The Olium gas leak occurred at Shriram Mills’ workplace. Olium is a dangerous gas, and the essence of the gas has resulted in the deaths of many individuals as well as severe injuries to the health of those who are in close proximity.

It was not feasible to prove the mill owners’ negligence, so Res Ipsa Loquitur was used to shift the burden of proof to the mill owners to demonstrate that they were not guilty of negligence. In the PIL, it was pleaded that if any industry is engaged in situations of injuries/damage caused by the high-risk activities it engages in, the onus should be on them to prove that they were not negligent. In this particular instance, the maxim was applied to determine negligence, and they were found liable for the probably resulting harm & damage or injury.

It was also decided that any industry that engages in occupational hazards will be deemed grossly negligent prima facie, and it’ll be up to them to initiate the evidence as well as demonstrate how they are not guilty of negligence, failing which they’ll be held legally responsible & liable.

The defendant will present evidence in Res Ipsa Loquitur. The establishment of Res Ipsa Loquitur is a two-step process.

  1. Whether or not the unfortunate incident was ended up caused by the gross negligence of someone else.
  2. Whether the defendant was the sole operator of the modality that resulted in the accident.

If discovered, Res Ipsa Loquitur simply creates an assumption of negligence.

Conclusion of the Res Ipsa Loquitur Doctrine in Tort Law

Res Ipsa Loquitur is a legal principle that can be used in a variety of instances. It is mostly used in commercial aeroplane serious accidents and road and traffic accidents in The US.

In the modern era, Res Ipsa Loquitur is gaining in popularity. It is used in cases involving industries, such as the use of the phrase in M.C.Mehta v. UOI, also known as the olium gas leak case, and in a broad sense all cases where the public’s rights have been infringed and they have been harmed and they are unable to establish negligence. As a consequence, the onus of proof is moved to the defendants.

Read more: –

Audi Alteram Partem case laws in India

Define Torts and its essential elements Law of Torts in India

Damnum Sine Injuria and Injuria Sine Damnum – The legal maxim

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