Res Ipsa Loquitur: What it Means and How it is Used in Personal Injury Law

The Latin phrase res ipsa loquitor literally means “the thing speaks for itself”. In law, this principle allows plaintiffs to meet their burden of proof with circumstantial evidence (evidence that implies someone committed a crime or acted negligently). 

If a plaintiff invokes res ipsa loquitur, they will be able to ask the court to make assumptions of fact without direct evidence. Meaning that negligence is presumed because there is no other explanation for what occurred. If the court accepts the assumptions of fact, a defendant may be held liable for damages.   

What Needs to be Proven

In order for a plaintiff to successfully invoke res ipsa Loquitur in most states, three things must be proven:

The kind of event or occurrence ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence; 

the event or occurrence was caused by an agency or instrumentality within the exclusive control of the defendant; and 

the plaintiff did not contribute to the cause of the accident or injury.

It is important to note that certain types of cases make it very difficult to invoke res ipsa loquitur. For example, slip and fall cases, due to the likelihood of a slip and fall failing the third element and the defendant’s negligence not being the only factor that contributed to the injury. 

Although The three elements listed above are generally accepted as the criteria needed to invoke res ipsa loquitur, rules surrounding the usage of this doctrine vary by state. 

Res Ipsa Loquitur: an Example 

Let’s take a look at a Nevada case that shaped the state’s res ipsa loquitur doctrine. 

In the Nevada Supreme Court Case of Woosley v. State Farm Ins. Co., 117 Nev. 182, 18 P.3d 317 (2001), Plaintiff Woosley was injured when his car hit a ladder in the roadway. Plaintiff Woosley couldn’t prove a conventional case of negligence because he couldn’t prove how the ladder separated from the defendant driver’s car. He also could not argue that the defendant driver’s negligence was presumed due to the law that if a plaintiff was found to be even 1% negligent he could not recover on the basis of res ipsa loquitur. The defendant insurance company argued that the third element of res ipsa loquitur had not been met. 

Plaintiff Woosley then asked the Nevada Supreme Court to update the third element required to invoke res ipsa loquitur and make it consistent with Nevada’s comparative fault statute, N.R.S. 41.141. 

N.R.S. 41.141 states that a plaintiff may recover damages so long as the plaintiff’s negligence is not greater than the defendants. The court ruled that N.R.S. 41.141 superseded the third element of the res ipsa loquitur so long as the plaintiff’s negligence did not exceed the defendants. By incorporating the comparative negligence standard into the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, Nevada’s doctrine comported with modern comparative negligence law and became consistent with many other jurisdictions. 

If you’ve been injured and aren’t sure how to proceed with a lawsuit, schedule a consultation with a catastrophic injury lawyer, such as from Eglet Adams, for more information on Res Ipsa Loquitur and how it applies to your personal injury case. Call a law firm today.