Res ipsa loquitur

Res ipsa loquitur

"Res ipsa loquitur" is a legal term from the Latin meaning, "the thing itself speaks" but is more often translated "the thing speaks for itself." It signifies that further details are unnecessary; the proof of the case is self-evident. The doctrine is applied to tort claims which, as a matter of law, do not have to be explained beyond the point where liability is established. It is most useful to plaintiffs in certain negligence cases. It was first formulated in the case "Byrne v. Boadle" (1863), in England.


Under the old common law rule, to use "res ipsa loquitur" in the context of negligence the plaintiff must prove that:
#The harm would not ordinarily have occurred without someone's negligence
#The "thing" which caused the harm was under the exclusive control of the defendant at the time of the likely negligent act
#There must be an absence of a reasonable explanation as to how the harm occurred.

However, each state applies its own standards to determine negligence under the doctrine of "res ipsa loquitur". For example, in New York, courts have generally held that the doctrine of "res ipsa loquitur" applies if, first, the accident would not occur in the absence of negligence; second, the instrumentality causing injury was within the exclusive control of the defendant; and third, the plaintiff's voluntary or involuntary actions did not contribute to the accident. Often in dispute is the second element of exclusive control. The defendant's exclusivity of control must be such that the likelihood of injury was, more likely than not, the result of the defendant's negligence. The likelihood of other possibilities do not need to be eliminated altogether but they must be so reduced that the greater probability lies with the defendant.

This is usually referred to in the "scalpel left behind" example of obvious negligence in the case of a physician, in which a person goes in to a doctor for abdominal pains after having his appendix removed. X-rays determine the patient has a metal object the size and shape of a scalpel in his abdomen. It requires no further explanation to show the surgeon who removed the appendix was negligent, as there is no legitimate reason for a doctor to leave a scalpel behind in an appendectomy.

The "exclusive control" element has largely given way in modern cases to a less rigid formulation, where the plaintiff must prove that other responsible causes, including the conduct of the plaintiff and third persons, are sufficiently eliminated by the evidence. As a consequence, the third element, that the plaintiff did not contribute to his injury, is subsumed by the new formulation. In addition, it is important to note that contributory negligence is, in modern case law, reckoned in "comparison" to the injury caused by the other. For example, if the negligence of the other is 95% the cause of the plaintiff's injury, and the plaintiff is 5% responsible, the plaintiff's slight fault will not negate the negligence of the other (This new type of split liability is commonly called "Comparative Fault).

*For instance, plaintiff Doe is injured when an elevator he has entered plunges several floors and stops abruptly.
*Jane's Corporation built, and is responsible for maintaining, the elevator.
*Doe sues Jane, and during the proceedings, Jane claims that Doe's complaint should be dismissed because he has never proved, or for that matter even offered, a theory as to why the elevator functioned incorrectly. Therefore, argues Jane, there is no evidence that they were at fault in the incident.
*The court may hold that Doe does not have to prove anything beyond the fall itself.
*The elevator evidently malfunctioned (it was not intended to fall nor is that a proper function of a correctly functioning elevator), and Jane was responsible for the elevator in every respect, so Jane's Corporation is responsible for the fall.
*The thing speaks for itself: no further explanation is needed to establish a "prima facie" case.

Source case

The principle of "res ipsa loquitur" was first put forward by Baron Pollock in "Byrne v. Boadle", 159 Eng.Rep. 299, an 1863 English case. Byrne was struck by a barrel of flour falling from a second-story window. The court's presumption was that a barrel of flour falling out of a second-story window is itself sufficient evidence of negligence:

:"We are all of opinion that the rule must be absolute to enter the verdict for the plaintiff. The learned counsel was quite right in saying that there are many accidents from which no presumption of negligence can arise, but I think it would be wrong to lay down as a rule that in no case can a presumption of negligence arise from the fact of an accident. Suppose in this case the barrel had rolled out of the warehouse and fallen on the plaintiff, how could he possibly ascertain from what cause it occurred? It is the duty of persons who keep barrels in a warehouse to take care that they do not roll out, and I think that such a case would, beyond all doubt, afford" prima facie "evidence of negligence. A barrel could not roll out of a warehouse without some negligence, and to say that a plaintiff who is injured by it must call witnesses from the warehouse to prove negligence seems to me preposterous."

:"The present case upon the evidence comes to this, a man is passing in front of the premises of a dealer in flour, and there falls down upon him a barrel of flour. I think it apparent that the barrel was in the custody of the defendant who occupied the premises, and who is responsible for the acts of his servants who had the control of it; and in my opinion the fact of its falling is" prima facie "evidence of negligence, and the plaintiff who was injured by it is not bound to show that it could not fall without negligence, but if there are any facts inconsistent with negligence it is for the defendant to prove them."

Res ipsa loquitur and "prima facie"

"Res ipsa loquitur" is often confused with "prima facie" ("on its first appearance", or "by first instance"), the legal expression used when a matter appears to be self-evident from the facts. In common law jurisdictions, "prima facie" denotes evidence that (unless rebutted) would be sufficient to prove a particular proposition or fact.

The difference between the two is that "prima facie" is a term meaning the matter seems obvious and self-explanatory. "Res ipsa loquitur" is then the legal argument that because it is so obvious, the plaintiff can stop their explanation there and does not have to provide any further in-depth details to prove liability, because it "speaks for itself." Example:

:"There is a "prima facie" case that the defendant is liable. They controlled the pump. The pump was left on and flooded the plaintiff's house. The plaintiff was away and had left the house in the control of the defendant. "Res ipsa loquitur".

"Res ipsa loquitur" by country


In Canada the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur has been largely overturned by the Supreme Court. In case of "Fontaine v. British Columbia (Official Administrator)" [Case citation#Canada| [1998] 1 S.C.R. 424] the Court rejected the use of res ipsa loquitur and instead proposed the rule that once the plaintiff has proven that the harm was under exclusive control of the defendant and that they were not contributorally negligent a tactical burden is placed on the defendant in which the judge has the discretion to infer negligence unless the defendant can produce evidence to the contrary.

Hong Kong

Some lawyers prefer to avoid the expression "res ipsa loquitur" (For example, Hobhouse LJ in "Ratcliffe" v "Plymouth & Torbay Health Authority" [1998] PIQRP170). However, some other lawyers (and judges too) still find the expression a convenient one to refer to (For example, see Bokhary PJ, a permanent judge of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal, in "Sanfield Building Contractors Ltd" v "Li Kai Cheong" [2003] 6 HKCFAR 207).

The expression "res ipsa loquitur" is not a doctrine but a “mode of inferential reasoning” applies only to accidents of unknown cause. (see "Sanfield Building Contractors Ltd" v "Li Kai Cheong" [2003] 6 HKCFAR 207 and "Schellenbery" v "Tunnel Holdings Pty Ltd" (2000) 200 CLR 121)

The "res ipsa loquitur" mode of inferential reasoning comes into play where an accident of unknown cause is one that would not normally happen without negligence on the part of the defendant in control of the object or activity which injured the plaintiff or damaged his property. In such a situation the court is able to infer negligence on the defendant's part unless he offers an acceptable explanation consistent with his having taken reasonable care. (see "Sanfield Building Contractors Ltd" v "Li Kai Cheong" [2003] 6 HKCFAR 207)

outh Africa

In South Africa (Roman Dutch Law) there is no doctrine of "res ipsa loquitur", although the phrase is used regularly to mean the "facts speak for themselves." Res ipsa loquitur does not shift any burden of proof or onus from one party to the other. The phrase is merely a handy phrase used by lawyers.

United States

Most American courts recognize "res ipsa loquitur". The Restatement (Third) of Torts, § 17 describes a two step process for establishing res ipsa loquitur. The first step is whether the accident is the kind that would usually be caused by negligence, and the second is whether or not the defendant had exclusive control over the instrumentality that caused the accident. If found, res ipsa creates an inference of negligence, although in most cases it does not necessarily result in a directed verdict.

The doctrine was not initially welcome in medical malpractice law. In Gray v. Wright, 142 W. Va. 490, 96 S.E. 2d 671 (1957), a seven-inch hemostat was left in Mrs. Gray during gall bladder surgery in June, 1947, and despite her chronic complaints about stomach pain over the years, the device was not found until an x-ray in March, 1953, when it was removed. Her $12,000 award was reversed by the Supreme Court of West Virginia because she was outside the statutes of limitation when she filed and could not prove that the doctor concealed knowledge of his error. This "guilty knowledge" requirement would disappear over the years, and the "discovery rule" by which statutes of limitation run from the date of discovery of the wrongdoing rather than the date of the occurrence has become the rule in most states, allowing "res ipsa loquitur" to take its rightful place. It was part of the commentary in a train collision in California in 2008: "If two trains are in the same place at the same time, someone was negligent."

Forty years later, leaving a medical device in a patient was medical malpractice provable without expert testimony in almost any jurisdiction. Fieux v. Cardiovascular & Thoracic Clinic, P.C., 159 Or. App. 637, 641, 978 P.2d 429, 433 (1999); Steinkamp v. Caremark, 3 S.W.3d 191, 198-99 (Tex. Civ. App. 1999); Baumgardner v. Yusuf, 144 Cal. App. 4th 1381, 1392, 51 Cal. Rptr. 3d 1381, 1392 (2006); Fox v. Green, 161 N.C. App. 460, 465, 588 S.E. 2d 899, 904 (2003).

"In Virginia the doctrine, if not entirely abolished, has been limited and restricted to a very material extent." It may be utilized only when the circumstances of the incident, without further proof, are such that, in the ordinary course of events, the incident could not have happened except on the theory of negligence..." Lewis v. Carpenter Co., 252 Va. 296, 477 S.E.2d 492 (1996). [ Virginia Legal Doctrines]

A contention of "res ipsa loquitur" commonly is made in cases of commercial airplane accidents.

"Res Ipsa Loquitur" is also the slogan of the "The Bulletin" newspaper of Philadelphia.

Hunter S. Thompson is quoted as saying : "Maybe there is no Heaven. Or maybe this is all pure gibberishndash a product of the demented imagination of a lazy drunken hillbilly with a heart full of hate who has found a way to live out where the real winds blowndash to sleep late, have fun, get wild, drink whisky, and drive fast on empty streets with nothing in mind except falling in love and not getting arrested...Res ipsa loquitur. Let the good times roll."Gonzo Papers, Vol. 2: Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s (1988)

United Kingdom (England and Wales)

In English tort law, the effect of "res ipsa loquitur" is a strong inference in favour of the claimant that negligence has taken place. It does not however fully reverse the burden of proof ("Ng Chun Pui v Li Chuen Tat" [1988] RTR 298).

The requirement of control is important in English law. This requirement was not satisfied in "Easson v. LNE Ry" [1944] 2 KB 421, where a small child fell off a train several miles after it had left the station. It was considered that the door of the train was not sufficiently under control of the railway company after the train started moving and could have been opened by somebody for whom the company was not responsible. This case was distinguished from the earlier case of "Gee v. Metropolitan Ry" (1873) LR QB 161 where the plaitiff fell from the train immediately after it left the station, when the door through which he fell could still be considered to be fully controlled by the railway company.

The requirement that the exact cause of the accident must be unknown is illustrated by the case of "Barkway v. South Wales Transport" [1950] 1 All ER 392. In this case a bus veered across the road and it was known that the accident was caused by a flat tire. In this case, the plaintiff could not be assisted by "res ipsa loquitur" and had to go on to prove that the flat tire was caused by the transport company's negligence.

External links

See the article on [ Res Ipsa Loquitor under Oklahoma law] at

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • res ipsa loquitur — res ipsa lo·qui·tur also res ipsa lo·qui·tor / lō kwə tər/ n [Latin, the thing speaks for itself]: a doctrine or rule of evidence in tort law that permits an inference or presumption that a defendant was negligent in an accident injuring the… …   Law dictionary

  • res ipsa loquitur — Frase latina que significa los hechos hablan por sí solos , concepto legal importante en muchas demandas por malpraxis. Ejemplos clásicos de res ipsa loquitur son el olvido de una esponja en el abdomen después de cirugía abdominal o la amputación …   Diccionario médico

  • res ipsa loquitur — Latin, the thing speaks for itself …   Etymology dictionary

  • res ipsa loquitur — [ip′sə läk′wə tər] [L] the thing speaks for itself …   English World dictionary

  • res ipsa loquitur — /reez ip seuh loh kwi teuhr, lok wi , rays /, Law. the rule that an injury is due to the defendant s negligence when that which caused it was under his or her control or management and the injury would not have happened had proper management been …   Universalium

  • res ipsa loquitur — The thing speaks for itself. The rule that proof that the thing which caused the injury to the plaintiff was under the control and management of the defendant, and that the occurrence was such as in the ordinary course of things would not have… …   Ballentine's law dictionary

  • RES IPSA LOQUITUR — – дело само говорит (за себя), т. е. не требуется дальнейших доказательств …   Советский юридический словарь

  • res ipsa loquitur — (Latin) the thing speaks for itself (damage claim that transfers the burden of proof onto the recklessness or negligence) …   English contemporary dictionary

  • res ipsa loquitur — [ˌreɪz ˌɪpsə lɒkwɪtə] noun Law the principle that the mere occurrence of some types of accident is sufficient to imply negligence. Origin L., lit. the matter speaks for itself …   English new terms dictionary

  • res ipsa loquitur — /ˌreɪz ɪpsə ˈlɒkwətə/ (say .rayz ipsuh lokwuhtuh) noun the legal doctrine that when a thing is exclusively under the control of the defendant or that person s servant, and damage or injury occurs which would not ordinarily happen without… …  

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