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Res Ipsa Loquitur in Massachusetts

In Massachusetts, when a party brings a personal injury claim against another, the outcome of the claim generally relies on the legal concept of negligence. Although the act of ‘being negligent’ may seem self-explanatory, the law of negligence can be extremely complicated and is constantly evolving.

The legal concept of negligence revolves around society’s expectations of how people are expected to behave in certain situations. To prevail on a claim of negligence the plaintiff has the burden of proving the four elements of negligence: duty of reasonable care; breach of that duty; causation; and damages. You can learn more about the elements of negligence and how to satisfy this burden from our previous post here.

Initially, a plaintiff must establish that someone owes him a legal duty to use reasonable care—of course, the answer to this question depends on the particular circumstances involved. The key to the existence of a legal duty is “reasonable foreseeability.” If it is reasonably foreseeable that some type of action or omission (like driving a car or performing surgery) would cause some type of knowable harm (like a collision or a surgical complication) then the courts will find that there exists a legal duty to take care. Where it is minutely possible that some attenuated harm might arise as a result of some seemingly innocuous action, there probably will not be a legal duty to use reasonable care. Once a plaintiff can establish that he or she is owed a duty of reasonable care, the plaintiff must then establish that the defendant has breached that duty.

Breach can be established in a multitude of different ways. This article focuses on the concept res ipsa loquitur, which is when a defendant is presumed to have been negligent based on the facts surrounding the incident. The doctrine derives from the legal concept of negligence and means, in Latin, “the thing speaks for itself.” In court, the jury will be instructed to apply the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur when the evidence shows that the item that injured the plaintiff was in the exclusive control of the defendant and based on the evidence surrounding the circumstances the jury can reasonably conclude that the accident would not occurred, unless the defendant was negligent.

It is well settled Massachusetts law that res ipsa loquitor can only be applied where the defendant is in sole control of the instrumentality causing the accident. For example, say a load of bricks on a roof of a building being constructed by ABC Construction Company falls and injuries Sally Smith below. ABC Construction Company is liable for Sally Smith’s injuries even though no one saw the load fall. Liability falls on the construction company because it can be assumed it had exclusive control over the bricks that caused the injury or damages.

This doctrine creates a rebuttable presumption that the defendant was negligent where a plaintiff ca prove that (a) the instrumentality causing injury was in the defendant’s exclusive control, and (b) the accident was one that ordinarily does not happen in the absence of negligence. Res ipsa loquitur permits the jury to draw an inference of negligence in the absence of a specific cause of the accident when the accident is the kind that does not ordinarily happen unless a defendant was negligent in some respect. The plaintiff must also eliminate all other responsible causes, including the plaintiff’s own conduct.

One of the classic examples of res ipsa loquitur is where a beer barrel inexplicably falls out of the window of a brewery and strikes a pedestrian walking below. No one knows how or why the barrel escaped—but, because the barrel was in the brewery’s exclusive control and there is no explanation other than negligence for the loss of control of the barrel and the creation of a very dangerous situation, the doctrine could be used to prove that the brewery was negligent.

After a breach has been established, then it is on the plaintiff to establish that the defendant was the cause of the plaintiff’s injury. Negligent conduct alone is not enough to prevail on a legal action unless the negligent act causes some harm. A plaintiff must establish a causal link between the negligent conduct and the injury. Many times, this link is so obvious that it is not even contested: for example, where an MBTA bus strikes a pedestrian in a cross walk and causes a femur fracture. Sometimes, however, the link is more tenuous and can be challenged by the defendant, who will typically argue that someone or something else caused the injury complained of.

Finally, after a plaintiff has established that he or she was owed a duty of care; that duty was breached; and the defendant was the cause of the injury; the plaintiff must prove the extent of the damages. Damages are an incredibly factual specific question and range in types and amounts.

Because personal injury is such an intricate field and requires and special degree of understanding, it is not advisable to take on a defendant without first consulting legal experts. Our experienced team of attorneys continue to work hard to find the best options for our clients. Please contact our offices at your earliest convenience by phone at 978-225-9030 or complete a contact form on our website. We will return your inquiry with prompt attention.

The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

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