"Res ipsa loquitur," translated from the Latin, means "the thing speaks for itself." That's nice, you say. "But what does that have to do with a negligence case?" you ask. In some cases, it can mean the difference between victory and defeat, particularly where you can't prove that the defendant had notice of the defective condition that caused the accident.

Since 1967, when New York State's highest court addressed the issue in in Corcoran v. Banner Super Mkt., 19 N.Y.2d 425, 280 N.Y.S.2d 385, 227 N.E.2d 304 [1967], the way in which a plaintiff can prove his/her negligence claim via res ipsa loquitur has remained essentially the same:

"(1) the event must be of a kind which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone's negligence;  (2) it must be caused by an agency or instrumentality within the exclusive control of the defendant;  (3) it must not have been due to any voluntary action or contribution on the part of the plaintiff."  (19 N.Y.2d at 430, 280 N.Y.S.2d 385, 227 N.E.2d 304, quoting Prosser, Torts §  39, at 218 [3d ed.].)

In other words, if the defendant has exclusive control over the thing that caused the accident, and the accident is a type that will not ordinarily occur absent negligence, the defendant can be held liable.

Some of the most common examples of where this doctrine has been applied include where furniture fell out of a hotel window onto a plaintiff, elevator accidents, and where surgical instruments are left inside patients.

Jonathan Cooper
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Non-Compete, Trade Secret and School Negligence Lawyer