res ipsa Loquitur: Meaning, Essentials and Limitations

res ipsa loquitur

The Latin term Res Ipsa Loquitur means “the thing speaks for itself “. which means the situation of a particular act is enough to get the idea what has happened. It is the  principle that the mere occurrence of some types of accident is sufficient to imply negligence.

In tort law, a principle that allows plaintiffs to meet their burden of proof with what is, in effect, circumstantial evidence. The plaintiff can create a rebuttable presumption of negligence by the defendant by proving that the harm would not ordinarily have occurred without negligence, that the object that caused the harm was under the defendant’s control, and that there are no other plausible explanations. It is a Prima facie case.

According to the Blacks Law Dictionary the maxim is defined as the doctrine providing that, in some circumstances, the mere fact of an accidents occurrence raises an inference of negligence so as to establish a prima facie (at first sight) case. It is a symbol for the rule that the fact of the occurrence of an injury taken with the surrounding circumstances may permit an inference or raise a presumption of negligence, or make out a plaintiff’s prima facie case and present a question of fact for the defendant to meet with an explanation.

Case law regarding Res ipsa loquitur

Roe v. Minister of Health

In this case the plaintiff was admitted to the hospital for minor operations. The plaintiff was administered spinal anaesthetics by injections of nupercaine and developed spastic paraplegia. The anaesthetics were stored in glass ampoules immersed in a solution of phenol, and the judge found that the injuries were caused by phenol, which could have entered the ampoules through flaws not detectable by visual examination. The plaintiff contended that the doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur be applied against the hospital as the injury would not have occurred had the hospital not been negligent.

Houghland v. R.R. LOW (luxury of coaches) Ltd.

The plaintiff’s suitcase was deposited with the defendant bus-owner’s driver at the beginning of a journey. The bus broke down and the luggage was transferred by the owner’s servants from the bus’s boot to another bus. At the end of the journey the suitcase could not be found. The plaintiff was awarded damages and the court held that if the luggage had been lost then it was upto the defendant to prove that he was not negligent, which is nothing but Res Ipsa Loquitur.

Essentials to prove res ipsa loquitur –

1.The incident was of a type that does not generally happen without negligence

2.It was caused by an instrumentality solely in defendant’s control

3.The plaintiff did not contribute to the cause

Limitations on Res ipsa Loquitur

An injury which happens without the fault of a plaintiff (i.e. certain types of slip-and-fall accidents) would necessarily fail the prima facie test, failing the third element in particular.

Maxim not applicable if different inferences possible –

The maxim res ipsa loquitur applies when the only inference from the facts is that the accident could not have occurred but for the defendant’s negligence.

In Sk. Aliah Bakhas v. Dhirendra Nath, an auto rickshaw tried to cross the unmanned level crossing when the railway train was at a short distance from the crossing. The autorickshaw was hit and dragged to some distance by the train injuring the occupants. It was held that an attempt on the part of the rickshaw driver to cross the railway track when the train was fast approaching could lead to the only inference that the rickshaw driver was negligent. Therefore, the presumption of negligence against the rickshaw driver was raised. When the accident is capable of two explanations, such a presumption is not raised.

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