As you may have noticed, the legal world has its share of unique terms. For that reason, it can be helpful to look at the law as having its own language.
Now, one of the expressions you may come across is res ipsa loquitur. This is a Latin phrase that translates to “the thing speaks for itself.” Res ipsa is a doctrine that applies specifically to negligence cases, such as personal injury matters, car accidents, and medical malpractice.
Overview of Evidence Required for Negligence
Note that in order to understand res ipsa loquitur, it can be helpful to first have an idea of what the law considers negligence. This is because most personal injury lawsuits and medical malpractice cases are based on whether or not a person acted this way.
With that in mind, negligence is found in cases where someone owed a duty to you. This duty was then breached, which led to you sustaining an injury. The doctrine might seem difficult to understand, so let’s take a look at an example.
Now, we would all agree that drivers have a duty to operate their vehicle in a reasonable manner. Further, there are a number of ways that a motorist can breach this duty. Examples would be not paying attention to the road, speeding, or running a red light. If someone engages in these activities, it could be said that they are acting negligently.
But, remember, to be successful in this type of lawsuit you must show that the negligence caused your injury. An example would be if the person was looking down at their phone and rear-ended your car. By contrast, if someone’s vehicle was pushed into yours by another driver, it might not be the case that the person’s negligence caused your injury.
Finally, the law requires that you actually get injured. This might seem obvious, but keep in mind that it’s not enough that someone was in the wrong. Note that the injury can be ever so slight, such as a minor dent, a bruise, or even an emotional injury.
How Res Ipsa Loquitur Comes Into Play
In some cases, the circumstances are such that negligence can be inferred without any additional proof. This is the res ipsa loquitur doctrine, and for it to apply there must be no other explanation for the injury other than it being caused by a person’s negligence. In other words, your injury is a type that would not have occurred if the person acted reasonably.
In order to use res ipsa loquitur, you must show that the person was in exclusive control at the time of the accident. This means that no one else could have caused the accident. Further, the harm must not have been the product of anything that you did.
Now, if you can establish res ipsa loquitur, there is no need to prove the components of negligence, such as duty and breach. Instead, you only need to show that you were injured.
An Example of Res Ipsa Loquitur
One of the most common cases we see involving res ipsa loquitur is medical malpractice. The classic example is a doctor leaving a scalpel or sponge in the body of a patient during surgery. Here, there is no other explanation for this occurrence other than a medical professional acting negligently.
Further, so long as no one was allowed in the area, it could be said that the medical staff had complete control of the operating room. And because the patient was unconscious, there is no possibility that he or she contributed to the injury.
Res Ipsa Loquitur Shifts the Burden to the Defendant
It’s important to note that establishing res ipsa loquitur does not mean you will automatically win your case. Now, normally in a lawsuit, the person that files the claim must provide sufficient evidence to prove negligence. But, in cases involving res ipsa loquitur, this burden of proof “shifts” to the person that injured you.
This means that if the defendant fails to meet this burden, he or she will be held liable. However, it is possible for the person to offer enough evidence to overcome res ipsa loquitur.
For example, let’s consider again the case involving a foreign object left in a patient. If the surgeon offers evidence that the surgery was performed in an open operating theater, this could be enough to show that the area was not in the medical staff’s control. In other words, the object may have fallen out of the hands of a spectator and into the patient.
But, note that this evidence must completely explain the injury. In other words, if there were multiple items left in the body, the fact that one came from someone outside of the control of the medical staff would not be enough to excuse liability.