Res Ipsa Loquitur - Definition, Examples, Cases, Processes (2024)

The Latin term res ipsa loquitur translates to “the thing speaks for itself,” and is used in the U.S. legal system to refer to a doctrine of law in which an individual is assumed to have been negligent because he had exclusive control over the incident that caused the injury or damages. This assumption may be made even without specific evidence of negligence, as the accident, injury, or damages would not have occurred in the absence of negligence. To explore this concept, consider the following res ipsa loquitur definition.

Definition of Res Ipsa Loquitur


rayz ip-sah loh-quit-her


  1. A rule of law in which negligence is presumed when the object or situation which caused injury or damage was under his or her control, and the damage could not have happened had negligence not occurred.


1650-1660 Latin

Use of Res Ipsa Loquitur

The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur may be used as a “rebuttal presumption” when a defendant accused of negligently causing injury or damages asserts there is no proof of his involvement or negligence. When an individual files a civil lawsuit seeking payment for damages caused by the defendant’s negligence, he must prove to the judge or jury that:

  1. The defendant had a duty to perform in a certain manner
  2. The defendant breached that duty or performed negligently
  3. The defendant’s breach of duty caused the plaintiff’s damages

In the event the defendant denies having acted negligently, the plaintiff may, according to res ipsa loquitur, rebut the defendant’s claim, pointing out that the incident could not have occurred unless there was some negligence.

For example:

Eleanor walks her dog, Sadie, several blocks to the dog park every afternoon around 4 p.m. On Tuesday, as Eleanor and Sadie were passing a neighbor’s house, his husky charged out from the side of the property and attacked Sadie. Another neighbor helped get the husky off Sadie, though she was seriously injured, and Eleanor had been bitten twice.

When Eleanor presented her veterinary and medical bills to the dog’s owner, he refused to pay, saying he doesn’t know whether it was really his dog that attacked the pair, and that his dog is always locked in the back yard. When Eleanor takes her claim to small claims court, suing the neighbor for the $4,018 in medical and vet bills, the neighbor states that he is diligent in keeping his dog in the back yard, and so someone must have let it out, which is not his fault.

The judge rules in Eleanor’s favor, and awards her the full amount of damages, explaining to the defendant that, even though there is no proof that he personally let the dog out, he is always responsible for keeping the dog safely confined. According to the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, the incident could not have happened without negligence, and so the responsibility belongs to the defendant.

Elements of Res Ipsa Loquitur

Using the principle of res ipsa loquitur in a civil lawsuit requires the plaintiff to prove several specific elements existed at the time of the incident. These include:

  1. The injury or damages sustained could not, under ordinary circ*mstances, occur without negligence on the part of the defendant.
  2. The object or occurrence that caused the injury or damages was within the defendant’s exclusive control.
  3. The incident did not occur due to any voluntary action of, or participation by, the plaintiff.
  4. The defendant’s explanation of non-negligence does not adequately explain the plaintiff’s injury or damages.

Meeting the First Element of Res Ipsa Loquitur

Certain circ*mstances exist which leave little to no doubt as to the defendant’s negligence or culpability for the harm suffered by the plaintiff. This may be proven in one of three ways:

  1. The injury or damage itself proves blatant or obvious negligence, such as a surgical team leaving instruments inside a patient’s body.
  2. Society’s general experience and observation are adequate to support the claim of negligence, such as a surgeon performing a hysterectomy on a patient who only consented to having her tubes tied.
  3. Expert testimony strongly suggests that the injury could only have been caused by negligence, such as an experienced surgeon testifying that, having performed more than 800 appendectomies, he has never damaged a patient’s liver, which is not located near the appendix, nor does he know of any of his colleagues who have caused injury to a patient’s liver during an appendectomy.

Meeting the Second Element of Res Ipsa Loquitur

The requirement that the circ*mstance, event, or object that caused the plaintiff’s injury or damages be under the defendant’s exclusive control has been modified over the years, as proving exclusive control can be quite difficult. The less rigid requirement of this element of res ipsa loquitur requires that evidence essentially eliminates, to a great degree, other possible causes or other responsible parties, for the injury or damages.

For example:

Amy hired a landscape company to install a sprinkler system in her yard, as well as a faucet on the side wall of the home. Several days after the job was done, Amy used the faucet for the first time, when she attached a drip hose, turned the faucet on low as instructed by the landscaper, and left the drip line to water her trees for about two hours while she went shopping. When Amy returned home that afternoon, she found her entire back and side yards flooded, with water streaming from the faucet where it connected to the house.

The landscaping company claims the faucet worked properly when it was installed, and that Amy had no proof that they did anything wrong, or that it was their fault the faucet leaked. In spite of the landscapers’ denial of responsibility, there is little reason to believe someone else could have been responsible. Res ipsa loquitur holds that it is more likely than not that the faucet had been installed incorrectly, and that the landscaping company should be responsible to pay for Amy’s damages.

Meeting the Third Element of Res Ipsa Loquitur

The third element of res ipsa loquitur involves showing that the plaintiff did nothing to contribute to his own injury or damages.

For example:

Roland’s car spun out of control after he hit a rough area where road construction was under way, finally stopping when it slammed into a utility pole at the side of the road. Roland, who was seriously injured, claims there should have been a sign warning him of the extreme rough condition of that part of the road, even though the construction zone had been clearly marked a half mile back, and the proper safety signs, cones, and other equipment were being used.

At trial, testimony of three witnesses and a police officer show that Roland had been traveling in excess of 60 mph through the construction zone, where a temporary speed limit of 30 mph was clearly posted. Roland’s own negligence contributed to the accident and his injuries, therefore he cannot hold the construction company responsible for damages.

Meeting the Fourth Element of Res Ipsa Loquitur

The fourth element of res ipsa loquitur recognizes that a defendant can overcome a res ipsa loquitur claim by presenting evidence that a non-negligent occurrence fully accounts for the plaintiff’s injury or damages. In the event the defendant’s explanation in such a situation does not add up or fully explain the plaintiff’s damages, this defense may fail.

Res Ipsa Loquitur vs. Prima Facie

The term res ipsa loquitur is frequently confused with the term prima facie, though there is a significant difference between the two as used in the legal system. Res ipsa loquitur refers to a situation in which the facts of a case make it self-evident that the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injury or damages. Prima facie, which means “at first glance,” refers to the fact that enough evidence exists, if taken at face value, to file charges or pursue a legal action.

Res Ipsa Loquitur in Practice

The principle of res ipsa loquitur can be applied in a variety of situations in which an individual or entity is accused of negligently causing someone’s injury or damages.

The Stray Barrel of Flour

In 1863, as a man named Byrne was strolling past Broadle’s flour shop, a barrel of flour rolled out of a window overhead and landed on him, causing significant injury. Byrne filed a civil lawsuit against the flour shop, claiming it had been negligent in failing to keep the barrel contained. At trial, an eyewitness testified that he had seen the barrel fall from Broadle’s window and strike Byrne, though he did not see the cause of the barrel’s fall.

Broadle, owner of the flour shop, asked the court to dismiss Byrne’s case, as he had no evidence of negligence. Although there was no evidence that Broadle or any of his employees directly took any action that resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries, the court eventually held that Broadle had a duty of care to control the contents of the warehouse. In addition, Broadle had exclusive control over the barrel, and he should have installed some safety measures to prevent just such an occurrence.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Negligence – Failure to exercise a degree of care that would be taken by another reasonable person in the same circ*mstances.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
Res Ipsa Loquitur - Definition, Examples, Cases, Processes (2024)


Res Ipsa Loquitur - Definition, Examples, Cases, Processes? ›

Res Ipsa Loquitur, meaning ''the thing speaks for itself'' in Latin, is a principle in tort law that allows plaintiffs to meet burden of proof with circ*mstantial evidence. The Res Ipsa doctrine was first used in England in 1863, during the court case Byrne v. Boadle.

What is the case for res ipsa loquitur? ›

Res ipsa loquitur often arises in the "scalpel left behind" variety of case. For example, a person goes to a doctor with abdominal pains after having his appendix removed. X-rays show the patient has a metal object the size and shape of a scalpel in his abdomen.

Which of the following is the best definition of res ipsa loquitur? ›

Res ipsa loquitur is Latin and literally means the thing speaks for itself. In the context of a legal claim based on negligence, res ipsa loquitur essentially means that the circ*mstances surrounding the case make it obvious that negligence occurred.

What are the four elements of res ipsa loquitur? ›

Duty: Defendant had a duty to care for the victim. Breach of duty: Defendant failed to provide this care. Causation: The breach of duty caused the victim's injuries. Damages: The victim was indeed injured.

What is an example of res ipsa loquitur quizlet? ›

FLEXIBLE TEST: Company's power line fell and started a fire causing damage to P's property. P could rely on res ipsa loquitur here because power lines do not usually fall w/o fault of their company. RIL is applied in absence of substantial, significant, or probable explanation.

What is a simple example of res ipsa loquitur? ›

Various examples of res ipsa loquitur include the following: a piano falling from a window and landing on an individual, a barrel falling from a skyscraper and harming someone below, a sponge is left inside a patient following surgery or the carcass of an animal is discovered inside a food can.

How do you argue res ipsa loquitur? ›

Prima Facie Case Test:

To prove res ipsa loquitur negligence, the plaintiff must prove 3 things: The incident was of a type that does not generally happen without negligence. It was caused by an instrumentality solely in defendant's control. The plaintiff did not contribute to the cause.

Is res ipsa loquitur still used today? ›

In California, medical malpractice and car accidents are typical cases in which you might consider using res ipsa loquitur. Still, it could also be used in other injury cases, such as product liability.

Does res ipsa loquitur shift the burden of proof? ›

The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur shifts the burden of proof from the plaintiff to the defendant.

What is the summary judgment of res ipsa loquitur? ›

The legal term “res ipsa loquitur” is a Latin phrase that literally means “the thing speaks for itself.” The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur permits an inference of negligence “when an accident is of the kind that does not ordinarily happen unless the defendant was negligent in some respect and other responsible causes ...

How do you establish res ipsa loquitur? ›

Elements of Res Ipsa Loquitur
  1. The type of injury that occurred doesn't usually happen without negligence;
  2. The instrumentality causing your injury was under the control of the defendant; and.
  3. You didn't contribute to your own injury.
Mar 15, 2024

What must a plaintiff prove before being able to rely on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur? ›

“[S]ubmission of the case on the theory of res ipsa loquitur is warranted only when the plaintiff can establish the following elements: (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 ...

What is the defense against res ipsa loquitur? ›

Res ipsa loquitur requires a showing that the outcome in the case could not have happened without some negligence. A defense, then, is to assert that there was an absence of negligence on the part of the defendant. This is to say that a defendant acted reasonably.

Which of the following best describes res ipsa loquitur? ›

Under certain circ*mstances, the fact that a particular injury occurred may itself establish or tend to establish a breach of duty owed, permitting the trier of fact to infer the defendant's liability. This is the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur ("the thing speaks for itself").

What is an example of res ipsa loquitur in medical terms? ›

In egregious cases, jurors will generally have no trouble finding that the harm would not have happened without negligence, and res ipsa loquitur typically applies. Doctors leaving surgical instruments in the body, or operating on the wrong limb, are clear examples of this kind of obviously negligent conduct.

What is the legal term res ipsa loquitur refers to cases? ›

Res ipsa loquitur means, roughly, “the thing speaks for itself.” Courts developed the concept of res ipsa loquitur to deal with cases in which the actual negligent act cannot be proved, but it is clear that the injury was caused by negligence.

What is the res ipsa loquitur complaint? ›

Simply put, In California, res ipsa loquitur is a legal doctrine allowing accident victims to prove someone was negligent by the mere fact there is no other reasonable explanation. In other words, the only logical conclusion based on the available evidence is that the defendant is liable.

What is the res ipsa loquitur criminal law attempt? ›

The res ipsa loquitur test is a way to determine if someone has attempted to commit a crime. It looks at whether the person's actions would have made it clear to an observer that they intended to commit the crime. Attempting to commit a crime means trying to do it, but not actually succeeding.

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