Res Ipsa Loquitur

All it Means is
If it Looks Negligent, it Probably is!
Winning an Injury Case Without Evidence of Fault!

In my parochial school days, I grappled with Latin, a language that seemed more like a chore than a valuable skill. It felt like a relic from the past, something long gone and irrelevant to my modern life. Little did I know, however, that those tedious lessons would serve me well in unexpected ways.

Fast forward to when I decided to pursue a career in law, and suddenly, Latin wasn’t just a distant memory from my school days; it became a surprisingly useful tool. The roots of the American legal system run deep into European history, drawing heavily from Roman law. And guess what language was the lingua franca of the legal world back then? You guessed it—Latin.

Nowadays, Latin may be considered a “dead language,” but its influence lives on in the legal jargon and terminology used in courtrooms and legal documents. While it might not be as prevalent as it once was, snippets of Latin still pepper legal texts add a touch of sophistication and historical gravitas.

So, while I may have grumbled through conjugations and declensions during my school days, I now appreciate the value of that ancient language. It reminds me of the enduring legacy of legal traditions and nods to the intellectual heritage that underpins the legal profession. Plus, let’s be honest: Dropping a Latin phrase here and there does make us lawyers sound pretty smart, doesn’t it?

One Latin phrase you might come across in American law is “Res Ipsa Loquitur.”

Now, let’s break it down without relying on Google Translate.

First, we have “Res,” which means “thing” or “object” in Latin. Think of it as something tangible, like a piece of real estate or a ball.

Next is “Ipsa,” which translates to “itself” or “ourselves” or “themselves” in English.

Lastly, we have “Loquitur,” which means to speak or to elocute.

So, when you put it all together, “Res Ipsa Loquitur” essentially means “The thing speaks for itself.” It’s a legal principle suggesting that the circumstances or evidence surrounding a situation are so clear that no further explanation is needed—the thing in question is self-explanatory.

So, what’s the connection between personal injury law, injury attorneys, and an ancient Latin doctrine? Let’s examine.

While the law is often seen as rigid, it also tries to be fair. Over centuries of legal evolution, exceptions to the rules have emerged to ensure justice is served.

Take, for instance, the burden of proof in a personal injury lawsuit. You’ve probably heard that the plaintiff carries this burden. They’re tasked with proving their case “by a preponderance of the evidence,” meaning their version of events is more likely than not to be true.

In a negligence case like a car accident, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant breached a duty of care, causing injuries and resulting in measurable damages.

For example, imagine a scenario in which a defendant runs a stop sign, collides with the plaintiff’s car, and breaks the plaintiff’s leg, leading to hospitalization. If the plaintiff can prove that the defendant had a duty to stop at the stop sign, say through the use of a state or city statute requiring him to stop, everything else falls into place—the breach of duty caused the injury. The injury led to monetary damages. The jury awards compensation if the case is not settled before trial.

But what if all the evidence disappears after an accident? Think about a plane crash or when a train derails. The aftermath is not only gruesome if the crash site can even be found, but it leaves little to no evidence of what caused it—the evidence can be lost at sea or consumed by fire.

In such cases, how is the plaintiff supposed to prove the defendant’s negligence caused the crash when all of the evidence is missing or destroyed? Does the plaintiff simply lose? That’s not fair!!!

Enter Res Ipsa Loquitur – “The thing speaks for itself.”

The doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitor is a doctrine of fairness. It offers relief to the plaintiff or injured party by sparing them the burden of proving fault in specific situations. The accident itself is all the evidence that the plaintiff needs.

For example, in the aviation sector, airplanes do not spontaneously plummet from the sky without some form of negligence. Similarly, train accidents do not happen without negligence playing a role in the chain of events leading to the crash.

An Arizona Court did a nice job of explaining how all of this works:

Res Ipsa Loquitur
… Res ipsa loquitur
is `a theory of circumstantial evidence under which the jury may reasonably find negligence and causation from the fact of the accident and the defendant’s relation to the accident.'” Ward v. Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, 178 Ariz. 350, 354, 873 P.2d 688, 692 (App. 1994) (quoting Jackson v. H.H. Robertson Co., 118 Ariz. 29, 31, 574 P.2d 822, 824 (1978)). A plaintiff who establishes the elements of res ipsa loquitur can withstand a motion for summary judgment and reach the jury without direct proof of negligence. Id; McDonald v. Smitty’s Super Valu, Inc., 157 Ariz. 316, 318, 757 P.2d 120, 122 (App. 1988).

Alright, let’s address the concern that Res Ipsa Loquitur might unfairly tilt the scales against the defendant. How exactly does a defendant defend themselves in such cases?

First things first, it’s crucial to understand that Res Ipsa Loquitur isn’t an absolute rule. It doesn’t leave defendants high and dry. Instead, it simply shifts the burden of proof from the plaintiff to the defendant.

What does this mean in practical terms? Well, it means that while the plaintiff may initially seem to have a strong case based on the circumstances alone, the defendant isn’t without recourse. The inference that the defendant was negligent and thus responsible for the accident is what’s called a “rebuttable presumption.”

In simpler terms, this means the defendant has the opportunity to counter this presumption by presenting their own evidence. They can offer alternative explanations or proof of other probable causes for the accident, collision, or failure that led to the plaintiff’s injury.

So, rather than being unfairly disadvantaged, defendants have the chance to challenge the initial presumption and present their side of the story. It’s all about maintaining balance and ensuring that justice is served fairly for both parties involved.

If you find yourself in a situation where someone injured you or a loved one, but you’re not sure that you have a claim, call an experienced lawyer, one that’s been around for a long time. Maybe even one that’s been around for so long that they studied a bit of Latin in grade school.

My office serves the entire Phoenix Metropolitan Valley, including Gilbert, Mesa, Chandler, Phoenix, Apache Junction, and Scottsdale. We can handle everything by phone, and our practice is limited to pre-litigation personal injury cases.