There are problems with this doctrine but it is important to understand how it works. Here, we are taking a type of circumstantial evidence and applying them to a case. This is how the jury is able to make inferences of negligence.

Byrne v. Boadle

2 H. & C. 722, 159 Eng. Rep. 299 (1863).


Can there be assumptions made to contribute negligence to a person?


There are certain cases where there is res ispa loquitur. That is, “it speaks for itself”. The plaintiff does not always need to show evidence.


The circumstances here show that there was negligence.


A person was walking past the defendant’s store when a barrel of flour fell upon him. There was no further evidence.


It is clear that the barrel of flour came from the defendant’s shop. Because the defendant has charge over the flour and the servants, a barrel cannot just roll away without there being some negligence. So, although we should be careful to claim res ispa loquitur, the facts here present enough evidence to make a claim.

Additional Notes

This is the first case, the introductory case that outlined how the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur works.

Here, the plaintiff does not know what the negligent act was (had no clue where the barrel came from). There are defenses to this (could have come from another person). So how can the plaintiff overcome these plausible explanations? The plaintiff could select the explanation that is more plausible than the others. Here, the most probable is that the employees were negligent.

So, the inference could speak for themselves. The actions and circumstances in themselves suggests negligence. Thus, res ipsa loquitur.

McDougald v. Perry

716 So. 2d 783 (Flo. 1998).

McDougald is the plaintiff. Won in trial, lost in appeal, and thus the case is before the Florida Supreme Court.


Was there negligence as shown through res ispa loquitur?


To show that something is res ispa loquitur, the plaintiff must show:

  1. The event would not occur if there was no negligence (meaning, at some point, someone was negligent)
  2. That negligence came by the person who has control of the device that caused damage.


Here, the res ispa loquitur evidence is sufficient to show that there was negligence.


The plaintiff was following the defendant who was driving a tractor. The tractor went over a railroad and the spare tire became loose. Then, the tractor drove over the spare which sprung it into the air and landed on the plaintiff’s car.

Earlier, the defendant had conducted a check on the tractor and had noticed no damage, but damage was noticed after the accident (he had not checked every link in the failing chain).


The court begins by outlining the doctrine of res ispa loquitur. They say that the appellate court had misinterpreted the meaning and corrected them. Although the doctrine should only be used in rare cases, this case applies. It should only be used when there is a lack of evidence, even though it is likely that negligence occurred. The plaintiff only needs to show that the event would not have occurred if there had been no negligence by the person who was in control of the injuring device.

Here, common experience would show that the tire would not have released had the inspection been conducted properly by the owner. Therefore, there is sufficient evidence to claim res ispa loquitur.

Additional Notes

Often, we will see competing explanations because the defendant does not need to prove any of them. They just need to say “look at this alternative explanation, it could have been that.”

The defendant wants the plaintiff to show expert testimony to establish how this would have happened because the jury is not likely to know how these things work right off the bat whereas an expert witness would.

The plaintiff here needs to show that when an accident occurs in an accident like this, a person could be negligent (a tire will stay secure if this was done properly). Using common sense, there is not a need for an expert testimony.

There is an issue when you try to make this issue at trial. That is, this is a latin term. Meaning, a jury will not like to hear these words because it’s jargon. So, we need to minimize how the words sound.

Larson v. St. Francis Hotel

83 Cal. App. 2d 210 (1948).

Larson is the plaintiff. Lost in trial court and appealed.


Does the doctrine of res ispa loquitur apply?


Res ispa loquitur requires the plaintiff to prove:

  1. There was an accident
  2. What caused the accident is under the exclusive control of the defendant
  3. Under ordinary care and events, the accident would not have happened.

This case focuses on exclusive control


No, the doctrine does not apply


The plaintiff stepped out from under the marquee when she was struck on the head by an armchair where no one knew where it came from. She sued the hotel claiming res ispa loquitur.


The doctrine cannot be applied here for two reasons:

  1. The furniture (if it was the hotels) is not in the exclusive control of the hotel. This is because the guests have a say in how the furniture is used.
  2. To maintain exclusive control would mean that the hotel guarded every room. This is an unreasonable action.

Therefore, the res ispa loquitur doctrine cannot apply.


Although courts don’t fully subscribe to the “exclusive control” rule anymore, they do say that other responsible causes either from the plaintiff or others, could show that the defendant’s control is eliminated (i.e. plaintiff who has control of hot and cold water at the hotel and is burned from the water temperature cannot claim res ispa loquitur.).

Additional Notes

There is no such thing as a good res ipsa loquitur case. There may be some stronger cases, but not a single one is great. It will always be better to have some actual evidence.

Here, this is not something that happens in the absence of negligence (meaning there was some negligence). However, the defendant was not in control of the event that caused the injury. Here, the chair was thrown out of a window. There are a lot of explanations that happened where the defendant would not have had control over it.

This doctrine really gives the plaintiff a chance to win when otherwise they would have always lost (given that evidence is missing).

Cruz v. DaimlerChrysler Motors Corp.

66 A.3d 446 (RI. 2013).

Cruz is the plaintiff, lost in the trial court and appealed.


Does the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur apply?


Restatement (Second) of Torts §328D defines the subject as:

  1. Event does not occur when there is no negligence
  2. Other responsible causes need to be eliminated by the evidence
  3. the negligence is within the scope of duty on the defendant

This case addresses the first two elements.


There was not sufficient evidence to support the doctrine’s use. However, the doctrine is confirmed to be used in the jurisdiction.


Plaintiff was cleaning the car when the airbags went off. They sued both the dealership (car was purchased used three years earlier) and the manufacturer. However, when the manufacturer went bankrupt, the case only focused on the negligence of the dealership.

The argument was that the dealership was negligent in not checking for a defect. Since there is no evidence of that however, then the case would need to rely on res ipsa loquitur.


Importantly, the court takes the opportunity to make the doctrine a part of good law in Rhode Island. They define the doctrine, then apply it to the case at hand.

The doctrine does not apply because although the defect should not have occurred and could only have occurred with negligence, there was not evidence presented to show that the plaintiffs eliminated other possible responsible causes. This was because there was a three year period from the purchase of the car to the accident. Assuming that the defect occurred because of the dealership would mean that the negligence occurred at the time of purchase. Because this is an unreasonable time, the doctrine cannot be applied.


We see an example where the “other responsible causes” was not eliminated. This occurred due to the passage of time. However, we have seen how time is not the other barrier in previous cases. See Larson.

Additional Notes

There was no evidence of negligence, but when the airbags detonate how can you say that there was no negligence? The reason why this case is complicated is because we lose a party here.

Because of the passing of time, the plaintiff did not prove that they did not have control and that the defendant did have control. This is because the plaintiff did not eliminate other reasonably likely causes.

James v. Wormuth

21 N.Y.3d 540 (2013).

James is the plaintiff. Lost in both the trial and appellate court before making this final appeal.


How does the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur apply in medical malpractice cases?


When the cause of an accident is unknown, the courts may infer negligence if:

  1. The event does not ordinarily occur if there was no negligence.
  2. The event must be caused by instrument when the defendant is in exclusive control of the instrument
  3. and, there is not contributory negligence.


The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur does not apply. Affirmed.


The plaintiff was undergoing a surgery when a guide wire was dislodged and lost. The doctor searched for the wire but was unable to find it and felt that the surgery needed to end. Later, the doctor told the patient what happened and why he made that decision. Eventually, the patient came back experiencing pain and underwent another surgery to remove the wire.

Consequently, the plaintiff sued the doctor for negligence.


Because the suit was related to how the wire became dislodged instead of the actions of the doctor during the surgery, the court needs to review the res ipsa loquitur doctrine. Here, it does not apply. This is because the plaintiff failed to provide any evidence contrary to the standard practice of leaving in a dislodged object if it could not be found. Therefore, this was not an event that would not ordinarily occur when there is negligence.

Additionally, the instrument is often handled by other individuals outside of the doctor’s control and so he cannot have exclusive control over the instrument.

Additional Notes

Here, the plaintiff doesn’t make a good claim for negligence. They did not present an expert witness, and the reason why is so that they could claim res ispa loquitur.

The reason why the plaintiff lost in these cases is because the defendant had “intentionally” left the wire in there. Other cases where it was found for the plaintiff the foreign object was left “unintentionally”. This matters because this is a product of a “risk-benefit” analysis of the doctor. So, there needs to be expert testimony to say whether this was negligent or not. Put simply, the plaintiff should have had expert testimony and not used res ispa loquitur.

They should have made a regular negligence case, not a res ipsa loquitur case. But because they made that case we need to look at whether there was res ispa loquitur. Here, there was not and this was because the doctor did not have full control over the instrument that caused the injury (several doctors had managed the device).

This case is really an exception, most of the time, courts don’t care about the control in medical malpractice cases. If they can’t determine who is in control, then everyone in liable. There are also other rules where the “captain of the ship”, the main individual directing orders, will be found liable.

Sullivan v. Crabtree

36 Tenn. App. 469 (1953).

Sullivan is the plaintiff. Lost in trial and appealed.


What happens when the court finds that it is possible to apply res ipsa loquitur?


Res ipsa loquitur is a common sense appraisal of circumstantial evidence.


Although it can be found that there was res ipsa loquitur, it is up to a jury to determine the applicability. The jury said no, so the trial court is affirmed.


The plaintiff’s adult son went on a tractor ride with Crabtree who was passed on a curvy highway. He went off the road a bit, lost control, and the tractor tipped crushing the plaintiff’s son and killing him.

In trial, the defendant said that there were a number of things that could have caused the accident, even one of the brake hoses coming loose. If that was the case, he would have been negligent.


The court agrees that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur could apply. However there are three effects that could occur from applying it:

  1. An inference of negligence can be drawn by the jury.
  2. A presumption of negligence arises (defendant must rebut)
  3. Defendant has burden of proof to show that they are not negligent.

Here, there was conflicting testimony at the trial. Since the doctrine applies, the jury has the ability to choose what to infer. They chose to infer that he was not negligent and so the verdict stands.


Even if you prove that there can be an inference of negligence through the res ipsa loquitur doctrine, that does not mean that there was negligence. The effects of the doctrine come into play and the jury has the ultimate decision of what to infer (unless the inference is so strong that a jury does not need to review it).

Additional Notes

Everything thus far has led up to understanding the effect of finding res ispa loquitur. Here there was res ispa loquitur. 1) This would not have happened had there been no negligence. 2) Driver was in control of the car. So what are the effects?

Res ispa loquitur is a pretrial thing. The judge determines if the doctrine could be made before it goes to the jury. If it goes to the jury, then the following could happen.

  1. An inference of negligence can be drawn by the jury.
  2. A presumption of negligence arises (defendant must rebut)
  3. Defendant has burden of proof to show that they are not negligent.

Here, the trial followed the first effect. “Here’s the evidence, here’s the doctrine that could be implied. With this doctrine, this inference may be applied.”

Put simply, if res ispa loquitur is found, all it does it take it to the jury who can make up their own minds.

Review of the Principle

There is no such thing as a good res ispa loquitur case

We can prove negligence through several ways:

  • Eyewitnesses (unreliable)
  • Circumstantial evidence

Res ispa loquitur is an explanation of circumstantial evidence.

We need to ask: More often than not, this would not of occurred had there not been any negligence. Evidence points to the defendant being the responsible party.

Most of the time this will need to be proved with expert witnesses (“more often than not, a mechanic can show why something came apart while a regular person can’t”).

You need to first convince the trial judge that there is a res ispa loquitur. If it is met, then the effect is that the jury can hear the case and make up their minds. There are three possible effects, but most of the time it only creates an inference of negligence which the jury may or may not draw. Competing explanations are for the jury to review.

More often than not, you will lose your res ispa loquitur case. These are also really poor cases to negotiate settlements.


The content contained in this article may contain inaccuracies and is not intended to reflect the opinions, views, beliefs, or practices of any academic professor or publication. Instead, this content is a reflection on the author’s understanding of the law and legal practices.