Res ipsa loquitur, often shortened to just “res ipsa,” is a legal concept that is used in negligence cases to substitute for evidence. Literally translated, it is Latin for “the thing speaks for itself.”
Res ipsa is a concept in common law or law based on the idea that judges’ decisions create binding “precedents.” Specifically, it resides in the area of tort law, which deals with wrongs against persons or property over which a plaintiff can sue and recover damages.
Despite being a Latin term, res ipsa was created by a court in England in 1863, and has been in use on both sides of the Atlantic ever since. Res ipsa came about comparatively late – even today some court decisions in the U.S. reference cases from the 14th Century, due to the fact that some see it as an “exception” to established legal principles.
Res Ipsa is Unique
In most tort cases, it is necessary for a plaintiff to prove a defendant was at fault before she or he can be awarded a recovery. The presumption is that just because something bad happened doesn’t mean someone else should be automatically held liable for it if they did not cause it.
However, under res ispa, that presumption is reversed. Fault does not have to be specifically proven, since the fact the event happened in the first place is clear evidence of fault existing somewhere, and all that is left to discover is who was in control of the means by which the damages occurred. As one might figure, res ipsa is only applicable in a limited number of situations that are intrinsically unusual.
A Res Ipsa Hypothetical
For instance, say Person A is driving their car down the street when a piano suddenly falls on top of it, luckily sparing Person A, but totaling their car. It turns out that Person A was driving under Person B’s Piano Emporium at the time; however, no one saw the accident happen or knows why it occurred. Regardless, Person A still sues Person B’s Piano Emporium under res ipsa loquitur. The negligence “speaks for itself”: Pianos are not supposed to simply fall on top of cars, and if one did, then whoever was in control of the piano at the time is liable for the damages to Person A’s car.
Historically, different jurisdictions interpreted the scope of res ipsa in very different ways, or even whether to allow suits to precede on res ipsa claims at all. One of the bigger debates lies in the idea of “exclusive control” of the means of the negligent act. In the hypothetical, the jurisdiction where the piano fell would make a difference as to whether Person A would sue Person B, their employees, the company itself, or all three. In those cases, a judge might take the question of who to sue as a sign that res ipsa is not useable at all, since exclusive control can’t be established.
There is also the question of contributory negligence, especially from the plaintiff. If Person A were illegally driving in the parking lane, for example, some judges would consider that contributory negligence and disallow a res ipsa claim.
Jonathan Huxley is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas who concentrates on legal topics such as Personal Injury, Contracts, Business Law, Patent Law and other topics as well; hammerle.com is an established practitioner in the legal world for those searching for assistance or additional information.