In cases involving negligence, such as personal injury cases, lawyers and insurance agents usually throw around the term Res Ipsa Loquitor. If you are ever involved in a personal injury suit, such as an auto accident, workplace accident or other personal injury accidents, and the other party uses this term, do not be intimidated. This term simply means "the thing speaks for itself" which in a negligence case does not really mean that much. This is just a fancy term for saying that "It's obvious! It's your fault."
In a typical negligence suit, it is the plaintiff, the one complaining or claiming that they were injured, who has the burden of proving his/her allegations. He must adequately establish that the defendant was negligent and such negligence was the cause of their loss or injury. If they fail to prove this, then the claim is denied and the case is dismissed. The defendant need not even do anything. On the other hand, if the plaintiff shows that his contentions are true, then the defendant will be given a chance to refute or deny them. The court will then consider the evidence presented and decide accordingly.
By invoking Res Ipsa Loquitor, the burden of proof is shifted from the plaintiff to the defendant. In effect, the plaintiff need not show that the defendant was negligent and such negligence is the cause of his loss or injury; the law presumes that the defendant is negligent and his negligence is the cause of the loss or injury. It is now the duty of the defendant to rebut the presumption.
The principle of Res Ipsa Loquitor was created to tilt the balance in favor of disadvantaged plaintiffs. There are cases where the evidence needed to prove negligence are in the exclusive control of the defendant so that it is very difficult for the plaintiffs to make out a case. Hence, the law comes to the aid of the plaintiff by placing the burden on the defendant.
Being a deviation from the normal scheme of things, invoking Res Ipsa Loquitor, requires the following circumstances to be present:
- 1. Inference of Negligence
- 2. Exclusive Control by the Defendant
- 3. Freedom from Contributory Negligence
Inference of negligence means that the accident or injury is of the type that does not happen unless there was negligence involved. There is no direct proof of negligence but the nature of the event necessarily leads one to think that there was negligence involved. An example would be a car that crashes into a gate.
Exclusive control by the defendant means that the cause of the accident or injury is the defendant because no other person has access to the object/s involved. In the example, a car that crashed into a gate is in the exclusive control of the driver.
Freedom from contributory negligence means that the accident or injury was not due in any way to any act of the plaintiff. Again, in the example, the plaintiff cannot be faulted for constructing a gate, as it is neither negligent nor unlawful to have a gate.
If all these three are present, the principle of Res Ipsa Loquitor will apply. The burden of proof is shifted to the defendant. However, if any one of these requisites is not proven, the duty to prove negligence and causation still remains with the plaintiff.