Res Ipsa Loquitur

Res ipsa loquitur is a Latin phrase, which literally translates to “the thing speaks for itself.” An essential part of any personal injury case is being able to show that the other party’s wrongdoing or negligence caused the injury at issue. Sometimes, an injured party is unable to show direct evidence of negligence.

The rule that it is for the plaintiff to prove negligence and not for defendant to disprove it, is in some cases one of considerable  hardship to the plaintiff, because it may be that true cause of the accident lies, solely within the knowledge of the defendant who caused it. The plaintiff can prove the accident, but he cannot prove how it happened so as to show its origin in the negligence of the defendant. This hardship is avoided to a great extent by the rule res ipsa loquitur (the thing speaks for itself). In such cases it is sufficient for the plaintiff to prove the accident and nothing more, for there is a presumption of negligence according to this maxim. Such a presumption arises in such special circumstances, where the mere happening of an accident will afford prima facie evidence that it was the result to want of due care. This happens, for instance, when the cause of mischief was apparently under the control of the defendant or his servants. The accident itself constitutes reasonable evidence of negligence in the particular circumstances.

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The maxim res ipsa loquitur suggests that on the circumstances of a given case the res speaks and is eloquent because the facts stand unexplained – with the result that the natural and reasonable inference from the facts not a conjectural inference shows that the act is attributable to some person’s negligent conduct. The effect of this maxim however, depends on the cogency of the inference to be drawn and must, therefore, vary in each case. Its effect appears to be to shift the burden or onus of proof on the defendant who is expected to show as to how the accident may have occurred without his negligence.

The rule was declared and explained thus: “There must be reasonable evidence of negligence. But where a thing is shown to be under the management of the defendant or his servant, and the accident is such as in the ordinary course of things does not happen, if those who have the management use proper care, it affords reasonable evidence, in the absence of explanation by the defendants, that the accident arose from want of care”.

Essential Conditions for Application of Res Ipsa Loquitur

The following conditions have to be satisfied for res ipsa loquitur to come into play:

(i) the event or accident must be of a kind which does not happen in the ordinary course of things if those who have the management and control use due care;

(ii) the event which has caused the accident was within the defendant’s control. The reason for this second requirement is that when the defendant has control of the thing which caused injury, he is in a better position than the plaintiff to explain how the accidents occurred.

The doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur applies not only to a case where the thing that inflicts the damage was under the sole management and control of the defendant but also where it is under the management and control of some one for whom he is responsible or whom he has a right to control. In its true sense Res Ipsa is only a means of estimating logical probability from the circumstances of the accident. Thus, the court will take judicial notice of what happens in the ordinary course of things at all even to the extent using this knowledge of the common affairs of life.

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The gist of res ipsa is that a presumption of negligence it drawn against the defendant. This presumption is rebuttable by the defendant. If the defendant succeeds rebutting the presumption, there is no guidance for the applicability of this doctrine. Again, if the defendant gives no rebutting evidence but a reasonable explanation, equally consistent with presence as well as with the absence of negligence, the presumptions or inference based on res ipsa loquitur can no longer be sustained. The burden of proving the affirmative, that the defendant was negligent and the accident occurred by his negligence, still remains with the plaintiff, and in such situation it will be for the court to determine at the time of judgement whether proved or undisputed facts, as a whole, disclose negligence.

In General Manager Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation v. Krishnan, it was held that the fact, that two vehicles brushed each other as a result of which the left hands of both the claimants (passengers) have been cut off below the shoulder joint would itself speak for the negligence on the part of driver of both the vehicles and in the absence of satisfactory explanation the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur comes into operation.

In Chairman-cum-Managing Director Bihar State Road Transport Corporation, Patna v. Manju Bhushan Sharma, Rajya Transport Bus being driven rashly and negligently dashed against a rickshaw as a result the deceased was thrown away more than 10 feet. It was held that in this case the manner in which the accident took place clearly shows that the bus was driven rashly and negligently and the principle of Res Ipsa Loquitur would be very much applicable to the fact of the case.

Doctrine where not applicable :

In the following cases the doctrine was held not applicable :

In Crisp v. Thomas: Where a pupil teacher in a school was engaged in teaching a class and was for that purpose using a black-board on an easel, and owing to the pegs of the easel not fitting well, the board fell down and injured one of the scholars, it was held that the maxim did not apply, and that the mere fall of the board was no evidence of negligence in any one.

In Syed Akbar v. State of Karnataka: While driving bus at a moderate speed the appellant driver suddenly noticed a four year child attempting to cross the road from the left to right. The road was 12ft wide with deep ditches on both sides. The driver swerved the bus to extreme right to dodge the child but it was hit by the bus and died on the spot. Since there was ditch at both sides of road, a further swerving of the bus would run the risk of the bus falling in the ditch. It was held that the rule of res ipsa loquitur could not be attracted in the present case. The accident happened due to an error of judgement and not negligence or want of driving skill. In order to attract the maxim, (a) the event or accident must be of a kind which does not happen in the ordinary course of things if those who have the management and control use due care, and (b) it has to be further satisfied that the event which caused the accident was within the defendant’s control. For the application of the maxim res ipsa loquitur no less  important a requirement is that the res must not only be speak negligence, but pin it on the defendant.

Limitation to the Rule of Res Ipsa Loquitur:

The following limitations to the rule of res ipsa loquitur may be noted:

(1) The rule does not apply to all accidents or mischiefs. It applies only when the cause of the accident lies solely within the knowledge of the defendant or is apparently under the control of the defendant or his servant.

(2) The rule does not create a legal presumption of negligence. There is only a rebuttable and not an irrebuttable presumption of negligence which the defendant may be able to rebut.

(3) The burden of proving negligence is in all cases on the plaintiff, but under the rule it is only less heavy on the plaintiff than otherwise.

(4) Under the rule the plaintiff, in the first instance, need only prove the accident. If he proves the accident he is deemed to have adduced reasonable evidence of negligence and thereby discharged his burden of proof, and a court may on the proof of the accident itself within any further evidence or proof of negligence, enter judgement for the plaintiff, if the defendant does not adduce any rebutting evidence. The rule of res ipsa loquitur, therefore, does not completely absolve the plaintiff from his liability to prove negligence.

(5) But under this rule, if defendant can show a way in which the accident may have reasonably occurred without negligence on his part or on the part of those for whom he is responsible, then the plaintiff is left where he began, that is, he must prove negligence. In other words, if the defendant gives a reasonable explanation, equally consistent with absence of negligence, the burden of proving the affirmative that the defendant was negligent and his negligence caused the accident, still remains on the plaintiff.

In Mohd. Rowther v. A Shunmugasundaram Chettiar: A fire broke out in the house rented by the defendant in storing fireworks which were highly dangerous and much loss was caused to the lessor. The quantity of explosive stored were at least 5000 lbs. Whereas the licence permitted only 1000 lbs. In an action for damages by the lessor it was held that the maxim res ipsa loquitur applied and that the defendant was liable.

In the case of Kerala State Elec. Board v. Kamalakshy, Kerala High Court held that where the death of person is caused by live broke electrical wires in a street, it is also a case of presumption of negligence.

In Manindranath Mukherjee v. Mathuradas Chaturbhuj, the defendant was the owner of a Cinema House adjoining a public road. He had put up as an advertising device, wooden frame, with a banner in it, from the roof of his house projecting on to the road. It fell upon the plaintiff and injured him while he was passing along the public road. The defendant was held liable by the court both under the rule of res ipsa loquitur and that of Rylands v. Fletcher.

Question:- Explain with the help of relevant case law the meaning and applications of the maxim, Res Ipsa Loquitur.

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