Define That Term #101
Big Brother's Not Just Watching the "Terrorists"--He's Watching You, Too

NY Court of Appeals Considers Doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur

Ever since I worked on a case in which our claim was based on the doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur, I've had an unusual interest in this legal theory.  As a result, I was excited to read the recent New York Court of Appeal's decision in Morejon v. Rais Constr. Co., 2006 NY Slip Op 03619. As to the fact that I found this decision to be exciting, I'm not entirely sure what that says about the current state of affairs in my life, but surely that's another topic, for another day, for an entirely different blog.

In any event, in Morejon, the Court considered the issue of whether summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff is properly granted where the plaintiff's case relies on the theory of res ipsa

This decision offers a great summary of New York law regarding this legal theory.  The Court first addressed the historical development of the legal theory.  The Court quoted the following from a case from 1874:

"Buildings properly constructed do not fall without adequate cause," we said.     "If there be no tempest prevailing or no external violence of any kind, the fair presumption is, that the fall occurred through adequate causes, such as the ruinous condition of the building, which could scarcely have escaped the observation of the owner. The mind is thus led to a presumption of negligence on his part, which may, of course, be rebutted. In the absence of explanatory evidence, negligence may be presumed."

And, the Court offered this definition of res ipsa:

(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.

The Court then summarized its pivotal decision from 1941, George Foltis, Inc. v. City of New York 287 NY 108 (1941):

The Court held that res ipsa loquitur does not create a presumption of negligence against the defendant. Rather, the circumstantial evidence allows but does not require the jury to infer that the defendant was negligent. The Court went on to state that res ipsa loquitur evidence does not ordinarily or automatically entitle the plaintiff to summary judgment or a directed verdict, even if the plaintiff's circumstantial evidence is unrefuted.

The Court concluded that while summary judgment may be granted in favor of a plaintiff, it should be a rare event.  The Court offered the following guidance to lower courts:

Res ipsa loquitur is a phrase that, perhaps because it is in Latin, has taken on its own mystique, although it is nothing more than a brand of circumstantial evidence [FN14]. Viewed in that light, the summary judgment (or directed verdict) issue may also be properly approached by simply evaluating the circumstantial evidence. If that evidence presents a question of fact as to the defendant's liability under the Kambat/Corcoran test for res ipsa loquitur, the case should go to trial. If the circumstantial evidence does not reach that level and present a question of fact, the defendant will prevail on the law. Alternatively, as we have said, the plaintiff should win summary judgment or a directed verdict in the exceptional case in which no facts are left for determination.

This decision is well worth a quick read.  Especially if, like myself, you harbor a strange fascination for the doctrine.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The comments to this entry are closed.