In some personal injury cases, it can be difficult to prove who is at fault because there is no direct evidence showing exactly how an injury occurred. In some of these situations, it may be impossible to prove negligence because of a lack of evidence. In some cases, however, a legal doctrine called “res ipsa loquitur” may help personal injury plaintiffs recover damages even when there is no direct evidence that another person caused the injury.
What is Res Ipsa Loquitur?
Res ipsa loquitur is a Latin term that means “the thing speaks for itself.” This legal doctrine applies when an injury would not have occurred unless a defendant was negligent in some way. In such cases, a judge or jury is allowed to infer that the defendant was legally negligent, even if there is no specific finding as to the cause of the accident. Proving res ipsa loquitur in Florida requires a plaintiff to prove three elements: (1) that direct proof of negligence is unavailable; (2) that the instrumentality that caused the injury was under the exclusive control of the defendant; and (3) that the injury would not, in the ordinary course of events, have occurred without negligence on the part of the defendant.
When Does Res Ipsa Apply in Personal Injury Cases?
Recent Florida cases illustrate several examples of plaintiffs using res ipsa loquitur in personal injury claims. In a 1998 case, Lawrence McDougald claimed that Henry Perry and his employer, C&S Chemical, Inc., were negligent in causing injuries McDougald sustained in a car accident. McDougald was driving behind a tractor-trailer driven by Perry when a spare tire under the trailer came out of its cradle and collided with McDougald’s windshield. The Supreme Court of Florida ruled that res ipsa loquitur applied to this case because a spare tire escaping from its cradle is the type of accident which would not occur but for the failure to exercise reasonable care by the person who had control of the tire. The Court also noted that a plaintiff using res ipsa loquitur is not required to eliminate with certainty all other possible causes of the accident; rather, a plaintiff must only show evidence that reasonable persons can say that it is more likely than not that there was negligence associated with the cause of the accident.
In other cases, res ipsa has not been successful in proving personal injury claims. In 2012, Angela Hancock was injured in a Wal-Mart store when three bags of beach toys fell from a display shelf and struck her head, shoulder, and back. In her trial, Hancock requested that the jury receive a res ipsa loquitur instruction that it could infer that Wal-Mart acting negligently despite the absence of direct evidence showing how it caused her injury. The district court denied her request, and the jury ruled in favor of Wal-Mart. On appeal, Hancock claimed that the court erred in failing to instruct the jury on res ipsa loquitur, but the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal in Florida disagreed. The Court of Appeal ruled that Hancock had failed to satisfy the first element of res ipsa loquitur – that there was no direct proof of negligence – because she introduced evidence at trial showing exactly how a Wal-Mart employee had been negligent in stacking the beach toys incorrectly. Since evidence of negligence was available to the jury, res ipsa was not a legitimate theory of recovery.
Need More Help?
If you or a loved one has suffered an injury due to another’s negligence, you may be entitled to compensation for your injuries even if there is no direct evidence of how the other party caused the injury. While res ipsa loquitur is rare in its application, it is both necessary and useful in cases where it does indeed apply. The experienced personal injury lawyers, John Piccin and Katie Glynn at Piccin & Glynn have over 40 years of experience and can help you through the difficult process of pursuing a personal injury claim.