Res ipsa loquitur: Its meaning, elements, explanation and case laws (2024)

Res ipsa loquitur” is a Latin phrase that means, “the thing speaks for itself” and pertains to obvious cases of negligence. Under the common law of negligence, theres ipsa loquiturdoctrine indicates that a breach of a party’s duty of care may be inferred from the events that occurred. In other words, the negligence is so obvious that you can tell that someone had a negligent hand in what happened.

To understand the maxim “res ipsa loquitur’ we need to understand the concept of negligence first. Toestablish negligence, the plaintiff must prove the following:

  • 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.

The plaintiff has the burden of proof to demonstrate these four elements of negligence. Thus, it is the plaintiff’s responsibility to produce necessary evidence against the defendant to have the judgment in his favour. In some cases, mere facts of incidence taken place become prima facie evidence of negligence. The legal doctrine of res ipsa loquitur relieves a plaintiff of his burden of proving any specific act of negligence on the part of the defendant. In a res ipsa loquitur case, the facts warrant an inference of negligence. A judge will determine whether the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies.

Elements of ‘res ipsa loquitur’:

  1. The event that caused injury to the plaintiff would not have occurred if someone has not acted negligently. i.e., the incident was of a type that does not generally happen without negligence.
  2. The evidence presented rules out all the possibilities of the fault of the plaintiff or third party. Thus, there is no contributory negligence on part of the plaintiff. i.e., it was caused by an instrumentality solely in the defendant’s control and that there are no other plausible explanations.
  3. There is a duty of care of the defendant towards the plaintiff which he breached.

If these elements are met, the burden shifts to the defendant to show that he was not negligent

Let us understand with some examples:

  1. Small things and tools like hammer may fall out of window injuring somebody walking below the window. It may be negligence or even mischief of somebody. But slipping of small things and tools is not unusual. Hence the doctrine res ipsa loquitur is not applicable.
  2. If some heavier thing like a piece of furniture like chair, table falling out of window injuring somebody walking below the window is unusual. It is a clear indication of the negligence. Hence the doctrine res ipsa loquitur is applicable.
  3. However, in some cases, there is no direct evidence of negligence. For example, spectators are watching a football game on a college ground. The spectators are sitting on temporarily fabricated benches. The benches collapse, injuring the spectators. The spectators file a personal injury action against the college, which built and maintained the benches. However, the spectators are unable to determine why the benches collapsed. Therefore, the spectators cannot prove that the college was negligent in any particular way. In such a case, a court may invoke the legal doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. If the judge in the collapsing benches case decided to apply the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, then the spectators would not have to show any specific act of negligence on the part of the college. They would merely have to prove that benches do not ordinarily collapse in the absence of negligence, that the college had exclusive control of the benches, and that the spectators did not contribute to the collapse of the benches by their own negligence. If the spectators proved those three elements, then the college would have to prove that it was not negligent in order to win the case.

Case Laws (Doctrine Applicable):

In Byrne v. Boadle, 2 H. & C. 722, 159 Eng. Rep. 299 (Exch. 1863) case, a man was walking on a sidewalk outside of a flour warehouse when a barrel of flour fell from a warehouse window. The man did not see the barrel fall out of the window, nor could he produce any evidence to indicate how or why the barrel fell from the window of the warehouse. Still, the court thought it apparent that the flour barrel almost certainly came from the flour manufacturer. Moreover, barrels of flour don’t ordinarily fall from warehouse windows in the absence of negligent conduct of the people running that warehouse. The warehouse workers had exclusive control of the barrel that fell out of the window and the plaintiff’s actions did not contribute to his injury.The court allowed the case to proceed because of the nature of the harm-causing event and Defendant’s relationship to it, i.e., as it was Defendant’s responsibility to control the contents of his warehouse, the accident itself is evidence of negligence.

In Read v. S. Pine Elec. Power Asso., 515 So. 2d 916 (Miss. 1987) case, the Court held that underres ipsa loquitur, the defendant’s negligence may be presumed and thus does need not be proven.

In Hayes v. Peters, 645 S.E.2d 846 (N.C. Ct. App. 2007) case, the Court said that under res ipsa loquitur, the finder of fact must be able to infer, through common knowledge and experience, that negligence occurred.

In Municipal Corporation of Delhi v. Subhagwanti, AIR 1966 SC 1750 case, due to the collapse of the Clock Tower situated opposite the Town Hall in the main Bazar of Chandni Chowk, Delhi, a number of persons died. The Clock Tower belonged to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and was exclusively under its control. It was 80 years’ old but the normal life of the structure of the building, which had fallen, could be 40-45 years, having regard to the kind of mortar used. In these circ*mstances, the Supreme Court held that the fall of Clock Tower tells its own story in raising an inference of negligence on the part of the defendant. Since the defendants could not prove the absence of negligence on their part, they were held liable. And also, a Clock tower in the heart of the city will need extra care and if it falls and causes injury to several people, the defendants will but obviously be held liable for the same under this principle. In such cases, direct evidence of proving negligence is not important, but the plaintiff has to establish a prima facie case, either by direct or circ*mstantial evidence of the defendant’s negligence.

In Nihal Kaur v. Director, P.G.I., Chandigarh, August 23,1996 case, where scissors were left in the body of a patient during an operation. Then his condition worsened and he died. Scissors were recovered from the ashes after cremation. Compensation of Rs. 1,20,000 was awarded to the defendants of the deceased.

Case Laws (Doctrine Not Applicable):

In O’Neal v. Burlington N., Inc., 413 N.W.2d 631 (Minn. Ct. App. 1987) where Intoxicated man aged 30 years brought action to recover for injuries sustained when train ran over his left leg while he was sleeping or sitting on the ground next to the railroad tracks with one leg extended across the track. Appellant contended that he should be considered as irresponsible as a child because he was extremely intoxicated. The Court of Appeals held that man was not within class of persons (child) intended to be protected by statute requiring railroads to build and maintain fences on each side of lines.

In K. Sobha v. Dr. Mrs. Raj Kumari Unithan, 2 November, 1998 case, the plaintiff, aged 35 years, who had an 8-year-old son, approached the defendant, a gynaecologists’, to consult regarding the non-conception of another child. She was advised to test tubing to remove possible obstruction in the fallopian tube. With the plaintiff’s consent, the needful was done by a simple procedure of blowing air through the apparatus into the vagin* under controlled pressure. Subsequently, some infection had occurred in the plaintiff’s reproductive system and the same had to be removed. There was no evidence to indicate any negligence on the part of the defendant which could have caused the infection. The cause of infection was, however, unknown. So, under these circ*mstances, The Kerala High Court held that it was not a case of res ipsa loquitur, as the inference of negligence could not be drawn from the facts of the case.

In R.S.R.T.C. v. Smt. Sayar Bai, AIR 1999 Raj 96 case, there was an accident which was alleged to have occurred due to the mechanical failure of the bus. There was no apparent evidence to indicate the negligence of the bus driver. It was held that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur could not be applied under the circ*mstances of the case and the Rajasthan State Road Transport Corporation could be held liable only after its negligence was proved.

Defence Available to Defendant:

Defendants can still rebut the presumption of negligence that res ipsa creates by refuting one of the three elements listed above.

  1. The defendant could prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the injury could occur even if reasonable care took place to prevent it. In the flour-barrel example, the defendant can prove an earthquake could shake an item loose and it could fall out of the warehouse window.
  2. Prove that the victim contributed to the incident in some way. In the flour-barrel example, if the defendant shows that the plaintiff was standing in an area marked as dangerous it could rebut the presumption of negligence created by res ipsa.
  3. The defendant could establish that he did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care under the law, or that the injury did not fall within the scope of the duty owed. For example, if the law only imposes a limited duty on the defendant not to behave recklessly, then res ipsa will not help the plaintiff by creating an inference of negligence since a negligent action would not violate the duty owed to the plaintiff.


Res ipsa loquiturandnegligence per seare both doctrines that assist in proving breach of duty in certain negligence cases. The former allows negligence to be inferred from the circ*mstances and the latter allows it to be inferred from a violation of law. Both have many applications that allow causes of action to go forward where there is a lack of direct evidence proving negligence.

Res ipsa loquitur: Its meaning, elements, explanation and case laws (2024)
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