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The Legal Doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur

Negligence CurtainRes ipsa loquitur is a Latin phrase, which literally translates to “the thing speaks for itself.” An essential part of any personal injury case is being able to show that the other party’s wrongdoing or negligence caused the injury at issue. Sometimes, an injured party is unable to show direct evidence of negligence. Fortunately, California’s doctrine of res ipsa loquitur means that circumstantial evidence may be sufficient if the injury was of the sort that would not normally occur absent negligence.


The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur lets an injured person present a prima facie case of negligence even when there is no specific evidence that the defendant party was negligent, or when only the defendant has access to the evidence of negligence. An injured person, however, may not use res ipsa if he or she has access to direct evidence of negligence.

The use of res ipsa is common in medical malpractice cases, in which injured patients often do not have access to evidence of a medical professional’s negligence. For example, it may be used to show that a physician was negligent in performing a surgery while the patient was unconscious, and thus unable to observe or collect any evidence of negligence.


To prove a res ipsa loquitur claim, an injured party must show three elements:

  • That the accident was of a sort that does not normally occur without someone’s negligence;
  • That the accident was caused by an instrumentality within the defendant’s exclusive control; and
  • That the accident did not happen due to any voluntary action by the injured party.

First, the type of injury must be the sort of that does not ordinarily happen if the defendant takes proper care. For example, a man injured himself when a restaurant’s counter stool fell off its base. Under ordinary circumstances and when used normally, stools do not fall apart without some negligence.

Second, the object causing the accident must have been within the sole control of the defendant party. In the stool case, the stool had been in the exclusive control of the restaurant that owned it.

Finally, the accident must not have occurred because of the injured party’s voluntary actions or contributions. The man in the stool case sat on the stool in an ordinary fashion, tilting it only about an inch. Thus, all three requirements for res ipsa loquitur were satisfied in the case, and the doctrine applied.

The difficulty in res ipsa cases is usually showing the defendant’s exclusive control. In another case, a woman was walking on the sidewalk adjoining a hotel, when she was hit on the head by an armchair that fell out of a window of the hotel. She brought a res ipsa suit against the hotel. Though being hit by a falling armchair is the sort of accident that does not ordinarily occur without negligence, and though the woman’s actions did not contribute to the injury, her res ipsa claim failed. This was because the hotel did not have exclusive control over the furniture in its rooms, because it gave partial control to its guests.

If you believe that you have been injured by another’s negligence, but have only circumstantial evidence, an experienced attorney can help you determine whether the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur will apply. Please contact the dedicated San Jose personal injury attorneys at Corsiglia, McMahon & Allard, L.L.P. for a free consultation today at (408) 289-1417.

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