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Res Ipsa Loquitor: Overview

This article is written by Ishanvi Jain, a student of Galgotias University, Noida

What is Res Ipsa Loquitor?

In Latin it means “the thing speaks for itself.” Legal definition says that it is a doctrine or rule of evidence in tort law that permits an inference or presumption that a defendant was negligent in an accident injuring the plaintiff on the basis of circumstantial evidence if the accident was of a kind that does not ordinarily occur in the absence of negligence. 

It is elementary in the law of torts that the onus of proving negligence lies upon him who alleges it. It is repeatedly declared that negligence will never be presumed. Even if there be a presumption to aid the plaintiff, he must still prove, by a preponderance (the quality or fact of being greater in number, quantity, or importance) of the evidence that defendant has been negligent. ‘Some courts, however, regard the doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur as symbolizing the principle of evidence which excepts certain situations from this general rule. Courts which deny that this amounts to an exception, regard a res ipsa case as merely describing a situation where the fact and nature of the injury itself “speaks,” that is, affords proof of negligence, so as to relieve the plaintiff of the initial obligation to show negligence, or rather, perhaps, to discharge that obligation on his part.’

The basis for this principle is generally said to be in the likelihood that negligence caused the injury, in view of the facts of the case. If there must be evidence of negligence, this, then, is the evidence. Circumstantial evidence is made sufficient, as a matter of law, to sustain a recovery in the absence of explanation by defendant. The mere fact of injury alone is never enough to invoke the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur:” But there is still another phase to a res ipsa case. The circumstances which give rise to the injury must be such as to lie exclusively within the defendant’s knowledge. This may be said to be the “reason” for the rule,’ and usually takes the form of the instrument or appliance causing the injury being under defendant’s control and management. Some authorities regard the doctrine as a principle of evidence while others insist upon treating it as a rule of the ‘substantive law of tort.’ 

Res Ipsa Loquitur is a maxim, the application of which shifts the burden of proof on the defendant. Generally, in a case it is the plaintiff who has to provide evidence to prove the defendant’s negligence. There is however, a change when this maxim is used. The burden of proof shifts to the defendant. There is a presumption of negligence on part of the defendant and it is upto him to prove his non-liability and that it was not his act which caused the plaintiff’s injury. The defendant leads the evidence.

Some Important Cases regarding Res Ipsa Loquitor :-

Leading English case as well as the 1st case to formulate the specific doctrine of res ipsa loquitor that is:

  • Byrne v. Boadle. 

Here it appeared that the plaintiff, while walking along the public street, was struck by a barrel of flour falling from a window above, The plaintiff could testify nothing as to the accident save that he had suddenly been injured by some falling object. Yet he had averred (allege as a fact in support of a plea) negligence in his pleading. Two eye witnesses testified that they saw a barrel falling, but could offer no evidence as to the reason for the accident, if “accident” it could be called. Because the plaintiff sought to recover on the grounds of negligence and there was no evidence of negligence, the court non-suited the plaintiff. But in the Court of Exchequer, it was unanimously held that the non-suit was improper and that the plaintiff had in fact offered evidence, by proof of the injury under the circumstances, to sustain a verdict for damages. He had made out a prima facie (at first sight) case which was sufficient to go to the jury. “If there are any facts inconsistent with negligence,” said Pollock, C.B., “it is for the defendant to prove them.” It was incumbent upon the defendant to disclose the circumstances of the falling of the barrel, if they indicated that he had exercised due care. If he had not, he could not complain if the jury so found. The court thought that a barrel “could not roll out of a warehouse without some negligence, and to say that the plaintiff who is injured by it must call witnesses from the warehouse to prove negligence” was preposterous.

  • Roe v. Minister of Health

In this case the plaintiff was admitted to the hospital for minor operations. The plaintiff was administered spinal anesthetics by injections of nupercaine and developed spastic paraplegia. The anesthetics were stored in glass ampoules immersed in a solution of phenol, and the judge found that the injuries were caused by phenol, which could have entered the ampoules through flaws not detectable by visual examination. The plaintiff contended that the doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur be applied against the hospital as the injury would not have occurred had the hospital not been negligent. The court held that the doctrine cannot be applied and the defendant cannot be held liable as the very occurrence of the injury or damage was not foreseeable. And the cause for the injury was beyond the control of the defendants. It was said to be a case of unknown tort-feasance.

Thus, in case of offences which are unintended and the commission of the offence itself was not known, the defendant cannot be held liable as in this case its an unidentified tort feasor.

  • A.S. Mittal and Anr v. State of U.P. and Ors.

The defendants had organized an eye camp at Khurja along with the Lions Club. 88 low-risk cataract operations were undertaken during the period of the camp. It was however, disastrous as many of those who had been operated upon lost their eye sight due to post medical treatment. Proceedings against the government initiated for negligence of the doctors. Damages worth Rs 12500 were paid as interim relief to each of the aggrieved. The decision was on the basis of Res Ipsa Loquitur as the injury would not have occurred had the doctors not been negligent in not having followed up with post-operation treatment.

Res Ipsa Loquitur can be applied in matters where all the procedures have not been followed and is not just limited to the commission of an act.

  • M.C.Mehta v. Union of India

More popularly known as the Olium gas leak case, this is a Public Interest Litigation regarding the establishment of enterprises involved in hazardous works in thickly populated areas in the light of the Olium gas leak. The Olium gas leak had occurred in the work premises of Shriram Mills. Olium is a hazardous gas and this nature of the gas had caused the death of many people and causing serious injuries to the health of others staying in the close vicinity. It was not possible to establish negligence of the mill owners and Res Ipsa Loquitur was applied to shift the burden of proof on the mill owners to show that they were not negligent. In the PIL it was pleaded that any industry involved in cases of injuries/damage due to the hazardous activities it undertakes then the onus must be on them prima facie to establish that they were not negligent. In this case the maxim was made use of to establish negligence and they were held liable for the damage and injury caused. It was further held that any company involved in hazardous activities will be held negligent prima facie and it is upto them to lead the evidence and prove how they are not negligent failing which they will be held liable.

In Res Ipsa Loquitur, the defendant will lead evidence. There is a two step process to establishing Res Ipsa Loquitur-

1. Whether the accident is the kind that would usually be caused by negligence.

2. Whether or not the defendant had exclusive control over the instrumentality that caused the accident.

If found, Res Ipsa Loquitur creates an inference of negligence.

Res Ipsa Loquitur finds its applicability in a variety of situations. In the United States it is mostly applied in cases of commercial airplane accidents and road and traffic accidents.

Generally, it is applied in cases of medical negligence where it cannot be ascertained as to which specific act of the hospital had caused the injury and where the situation is never outside the control of the hospitals.

A minority of courts hold that res ipsa creates a rebuttable presumption of negligence. Unless the defendant offers sufficient evidence to contradict it, the court must direct a verdict for the plaintiff. Some states have gone as far as to shift the burden of proof to the defendant, requiring her to introduce evidence of greater weight than that of the plaintiff

Conclusion 

Res Ipsa Loquitur is finding increasing applicability in the modern era. It is applied in cases of industries like the use of the maxim in the M.C.Mehta v. Union of India popularly known as the olium gas leak case and generally all cases where the rights of the public is violated and they have been aggrieved and it is not possible for them to establish negligence. So the onus of not proving negligence is shifted to the defendants.

It is applied primarily in all prima facie cases, where at first instance the negligence on part of the defendant is evident and without which the injury would not have occurred. In such a case, it is presumed that the defendant is negligent and it is upto him to prove why he is not negligent.

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