Civil procedure concerns itself with what levels of proof and persuasion must be elicited from a plaintiff before a jury can hear a claim – and rule favorably on it. What happens when there isn’t sufficient evidence for a plaintiff to meet that burden, in part perhaps because the defendant’s behavior – the negligence itself, even – has made it difficult to gather such evidence? Res ipsa evolved before modern discovery rules to allow cases to get to juries where negligence by the defendant might be readily inferred. The cases in this section show the development of the doctrine and explore its rationales and limits.
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Should courts be willing to presume negligence in situations where the plaintiff's injury implies negligence has occurred?
Notes: A barrel of flour rolls from the window of defendant’s shop and flattens the plaintiff, who was on the sidewalk below. Defendant admitted he was a dealer in flour. However, none of the witnesses saw anyone nearby who could have been responsible for the falling barrel. Neither was the plaintiff able to produce any evidence to support a claim of negligence.
Should courts still apply the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur when a defendant does not have exclusive control over the object which harms the plaintiff?
Notes: Plaintiff was struck on the head and knocked unconscious by a heavy, overstuffed armchair. At the time of impact, plaintiff was walking on the sidewalk near the defendant’s hotel. No witnesses saw the chair until it was a few feet from plaintiff’s head, nor was there any evidence identifying the chair as belonging to the hotel.
Should courts be willing to apply res ipsa loquitur principles to defendants who acquiesce to conditions which made the wrongful injury likely?
Notes: Defendant hosted an incredibly rowdy convention, in which gunfire in the lobby, destruction of hotel fixtures, and defenestrations were common. However, defendant did not make any attempts to reign in the behavior of its guests: no complaints were made to the organization running the convention, nor to the police. Plaintiff was walking on the sidewalk near defendant’s hotel while the convention was ongoing. After looking upward to ascertain the source of an explosion, plaintiff was struck in the left eye by a mud-like substance. She lost sight in her left eye due to the impact. The only building from which the material could have fallen was defendant’s hotel.
Are there situations where courts should apply res ipsa loquitur despite a plaintiff’s failure to satisfy the technical requirements of the doctrine?
Notes: Plaintiff was placed under anesthesia for appendectomy. After waking the following morning, plaintiff felt a sharp pain near his right shoulder—an area unrelated to his surgery. Despite treatments for the pain, plaintiff developed paralysis and muscle atrophy. Expert testimony corroborated the plaintiff’s claim that the paralysis was due to trauma suffered during the surgery. Due to a lack of evidence, plaintiff’s suit applied res ipsa loquitur against a number of parties.
Should res ipsa loquitur be applied to a group of defendants when plaintiff has submitted no direct evidence that they had control over the dangerous instrumentality or were involved in the harm?
Notes: Defendants were four guests who were smoking in a hotel room. After they had departed, a fire broke out in their room. The cause of the fire was determined to be a cigarette. However, plaintiff insurance company provided no evidence indicating which of the four guests had control of the cigarette which started the fire.
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