The law is full of Latin phrases that make little sense to the average person. But these phrases identify important legal concepts that everyone should be aware of, especially in the context of understanding personal injury law. Here is a recent example from a New York appellate decision that addresses a legal concept first identified by the ancient Romans: res ipsa loquitur.
Literally translated, res ipsa loquitur means, “The thing itself speaks,” or “the thing speaks for itself.” As applied to personal injury cases, res ipsa loquitur means a plaintiff can establish the defendant's negligence simply by proving an act occurred. The act itself proves the defendant's liability.
In New York, there are three elements to a res ipsa loquitur argument. First, the accident must be of a type that would not ordinarily occur unless the defendant was negligent. Second, the object or instrument that caused the accident must be under the defendant's “exclusive control.” Finally, the plaintiff took no voluntary action that contributed to the accident.
Barney-Yeboah v. Metro-North Commuter Railroad
Here is the recent example from the Appellate Division, First Department. Although this involved an accident that occurred on board a train, the same principles apply to any vehicle accident or personal injury case. The plaintiff was riding a Metro-North train when one of the train's ceiling panels swung open and hit her on the head. According to her testimony, one minute she was seated on the train. Suddenly, she heard a loud noise, and the next thing she knew she was lying on the floor. She looked up and saw the open panel.
The plaintiff sued Metro-North and moved for summary judgment based on the res ipsa loquitur doctrine. Manhattan Supreme Court denied the motion, but the First Department reversed on appeal. Metro-North previously conceded the first and third requirements of the doctrine—the accident would not have ordinarily occurred absent negligence and the plaintiff did not contribute to the accident—but argued there was a factual dispute over whether Metro-North had “exclusive control” over the malfunctioning panel. Metro-North argued that someone not under its control tampered with the panel, causing it to open. If true, this would defeat the “exclusive control” requirement.
The First Department, in its September 4 opinion granting the plaintiff summary judgment, noted, Metro-North never bothered to present any evidence someone tampered with the panel. The First Department said Metro-North offered nothing more than “speculation,” which was insufficient to defeat the plaintiff's argument.
The First Department's opinion was not unanimous, however. One justice dissented, arguing it should not be assumed that a “common carrier” like Metro-North had exclusive control over a crowded commuter train. The dissenting justice would have allowed Metro-North to present evidence at trial that someone else tampered with the panel.
Exceptional But Not Rare
Most personal injury cases are not won or lost on the res ipsa loquitur doctrine. The First Department emphasized this case was exceptional. Still, it is important to understand all aspects of the law as it applies to personal injury cases. That is why, if you are the victim of any sort of motor vehicle or transit-related accident, you should immediately retain the services of an experienced New York personal injury attorney.