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Case Law Update: Res Ipsa Loquitur

Posted Monday, January 14, 2019 by Christopher L. Thayer

In a recent Washington Court of Appeals Division III case, Clarke v. Nichols (35477-6, January 3, 2019)(Unpublished), the Court took the opportunity to review and clarify application of principles of Res Ipsa Loquitur (Latin translated literally as “the thing speaks for itself”).

In Clarke, plaintiff was injured while attempting to help defendant install some trim to the soffit of a “shack” on defendants’ property. Plaintiff was standing on a ladder and apparently fell. Plaintiff did not remember how he fell or what caused him to fall, and defendant did not witness the fall. Plaintiff was seriously injured and subsequently sued defendants for negligence. Plaintiff was unable to provide any evidence of wrongdoing by defendants, other than positing a number of speculative theories. Plaintiff’s case was dismissed on summary judgment by the trial court and plaintiff appealed.

A party asserting a claim based on negligence must generally establish four elements: (1) existence of a duty owed to plaintiff; (2) breach of this duty; (3) resulting injury, harm or damages; and (4) a proximate cause between the breach and the injury, harm or damages. A party is not generally entitled to presume negligence. However, there is a narrow exception known as the doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur.

Res Ipsa Loquitur “spares the plaintiff the requirement of proving specific acts of negligence in cases where plaintiff asserts he or she suffered injury, the cause of which cannot be fully explained, and the injury is of a type that would not ordinarily result if the defendant were not negligent.” Jackass Mt. Ranch v. S. Columbia Basin Irrigation Dist., 175 Wn. App. 397-98, 305 P.3d 1108 (2013). In order for this doctrine to apply, a plaintiff must show:

(1) the accident or occurrence producing the injury is of a kind which ordinarily does not happen in the absence of negligence; (2) the injuries are caused by an agency or instrumentality within the exclusive control of defendant; and (3) the injury-causing accident or occurrence is not due to any voluntary action or contribution on the part of plaintiff.

Horner v. N. Pacific Beneficial Association Hospitals, 62 Wn. 2d 351, 359, 382 P.2d 518 (1963).

Washington Courts have identified three scenarios where negligence could be inferred without affirmative proof:

(1) when the act causing the injury is so palpably negligent that is may be inferred as a matter of law, i.e., leaving foreign objects, sponges, scissors, etc. in the body, or amputation of the wrong member [limb]; (2) when the general experience and observation of mankind teaches that the result would not be expected without negligence; and (3) when proof by experts in an esoteric field creates and inference that negligence caused the injuries.

Horner, at 360.

In the Clarke case, the Court of Appeals noted the ladder plaintiff was standing on was not in defendants’ exclusive control and it also cannot be said that a fall from a ladder ordinarily does not happen in the absence of negligence by the person who provides or places the ladder. The Court of Appeals held Res Ipsa Loquitur did not apply and affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Clarke’s claims.

If you have questions about a potential negligence claim or you or a loved one was injured due to the carelessness of another, please feel free to contact managing member Chris Thayer at (206) 805-1494 or at CThayer@PivotalLawGroup.com.