Every first-year law student in tort class learns about the doctrine of “res ipsa loquitur,” which translates roughly to “the thing speaks for itself.” Essentially, the doctrine allows a jury to infer negligence because the accident causing the plaintiff’s injury occurred. The doctrine is established when: (1) the accident or occurrence that caused the plaintiff’s injury would not ordinarily happen in the absence of negligence, (2) the instrumentality or agency that caused the plaintiff’s injury was in the exclusive control of the defendant, and (3) the plaintiff did not contribute to the accident or occurrence. As one would imagine, this doctrine is sparingly applied in actual cases and is mostly seen in textbooks. I, for example, have never seen the doctrine successfully applied. But, the Washington Supreme Court may have giving the doctrine a new life: premises liability.
On April 24, 2004, the plaintiff was out on the defendant’s nearly 15-year-old wooden dock. The wood boards underneath one of the plaintiff’s feet snapped. The result was a hairline fracture to the plaintiff’s tibia.
When the defendant learned of the accident, she had the dock removed and destroyed. In addition to making firewood, the defendant’s actions also destroyed any evidence that she negligently maintained the wooden dock.
The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the defendant. However, without any evidence of negligence, the plaintiff has to invoke the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, that is, the defendant’s negligence could be inferred in light of the fact that wooden docks do not simply give away in the absence of negligent maintenance. The trial court disagreed with the plaintiff, believing that res ipsa loquitur could not be applied to premise liability.
The Washington Supreme Court in Curtis v. Lein reversed the trial court, holding that res ipsa loquitur could be applied in the context of premises liability. As stated by the Supreme Court:
In sum, [the plaintiff] has shown each of the elements necessary for relying upon res ipsa loquitur in a jury trial: (1) she has shown the accident is of a type that would not ordinarily happen in the absence of negligence because general experience counsels that properly maintained wooden docks do not give way under foot; (2) there is no evidence before us that the dock was not in the exclusive control of the [defendants]; and (3) it is uncontested that [the plaintiff] herself did not contribute in any way to the accident. We therefore hold that [the plaintiff] may rely upon res ipsa loquitur in presenting her case to a jury. Whether the inference of negligence arising from res ipsa loquitur will be convincing to a jury is a question to be answered by that jury.
Time will tell whether the res ipsa loquitur doctrine gains greater application in the law or will only remain a favorite testing subject for professors to terrorize law students.