In most tort cases, the person suing must prove that the defendant was acting negligently and that the negligence caused injury. However, there are a few cases in which the burden is on the defendant to show that his or her conduct was proper and not negligent. These types of cases sometimes apply the legal doctrine of “res ipsa loquitur,” Latin which translates to “the thing speaks for itself.” For these cases to be successful, the negligence of the defendant must be implied by the facts presented.
This doctrine was first used in England in 1863. In the case of Byrne v. Boadle, a pedestrian was hit by a barrel of flour that was being lowered from the top floors of a warehouse. The defendant owned the entire warehouse. The plaintiff, however, could not provide specific facts to prove that the defendant was negligent in his actions. Nevertheless, the defendant could not prove that he acted properly. Therefore, the plaintiff won the lawsuit.
Fast-forward to 2015. More and more courts are reluctant to utilize this legal doctrine. American courts want the plaintiff to show precisely how the defendant was negligent, or the lawsuit is often dismissed. For example, in a recent case, the plaintiff was suing a car manufacturer because the airbags in the car failed to deploy during a car accident. Under res ipsa loquitur, the car manufacturer would have to prove that it acted properly, and without negligence, in installing the air bags or else it would be found liable. However, the court refused to apply the doctrine, instead leaving the burden of proof on the plaintiff to prove the defendant’s negligence.
According to the Huffington Post, many courts are moving away from res ipsa loquitur out of fear that the causation between the negligence and the injury suffered is based more on speculation than actual facts. Therefore, many attorneys will only attempt to apply the doctrine as a last resort.