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Res Ipsa Loquitur: Relieving Plaintiffs of the Burden of Proof

PROOFUsually, when someone files a lawsuit, he or she is responsible for proving that the person being sued—known as the defendant or the respondent depending on a few different factors—did something that he or she should not have done, and as a result the person filing the lawsuit—the plaintiff—was harmed in some manner.  The idea behind this is that it is the responsibility of someone filing a lawsuit to at least present a credible case that he or she should receive judgment against the defendant.

However, there is an exception to the idea that the plaintiff should prove his case: the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.

What is res ipsa loquitur?

Literally, the phrase res ipsa loquitur means “the thing speaks for itself.”  It is the idea that there are some situations that are so obviously dangerous that the mere existence of the situation shifts the burden of proof onto the defendant to prove that he or she was not negligent. 

For example, if a plaintiff was injured when a barrel fell on him from a second story window, he may have a case for asking the court to utilize the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.  This is because it is generally accepted that, while accidents do happen in our world, a barrel doesn’t just fall out of a window unless someone was negligent in securing the window and/or improperly locating the barrel in such a place that it could fall.

Simply put, the very fact that the barrel fell out of a window is evidence that someone was negligent, and the defendant is put in the position of proving that he or she was not negligent—perhaps by showing the intervening act of some third party was what caused the barrel to fall, or something of that nature.

Are there exceptions?

As with virtually every topic in law, there are exceptions to this idea.  A full exploration of the exceptions is far beyond the scope of this blog, suffice to say that if you have been involved in an accident, you should probably talk with an experienced personal injury attorney who can evaluate your case and help you understand what your chances are.  It may very well be that, after hearing the facts of your situation, he or she concludes that you could have a valid case for asking the court to apply the doctrine.