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The Doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur

Res Ipsa Loquitur is a Latin phrase that means the thing speaks for itself. In the law of torts, it is a very popular doctrine. In cases, where the evidence is itself sufficient to prove the guilt of the defendant, the maxim is used there. So, the maxim points out any circumstantial evidence or an object which itself shows that an act has been committed. It shows that if the defendant was not negligent, the accident would not have happened.

In the law of torts, to prove somebody's negligence, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff which means the person who is the victim of the tort. It becomes really difficult to prove that the defendant was at fault and also to gather evidence against his act or omission. If the plaintiff is not able to prove negligence on the part of the defendant, the defendant cannot be made liable. So, the principle of Res Ipsa Loquitor came into force under which a plaintiff can use circumstantial evidence to establish negligence.

In the case of Morgan v. Sim, (1857) 11 Moo P.C. 307, 312, Lord Wensleydale stated that:
The party seeking to recover compensation for damage must make out that the party against whom he complains was in the wrong. The burden of proof is clearly upon him, and he must show that the loss is to be attributed to the negligence of the opposite party. If, in the end, he leaves the case in even scales, and does not satisfy the court that it was occasioned by the negligence or default of the other party, he cannot succeed.

So when the situations around the thing due to which the damage was caused was under the control of defendant and the happening would be such as which is out of ordinary control of the business.

In Halsbury's Law of England, the maxim is represented as 'An exception to the general rule that the burden of proof of the alleged negligence is in the first instance on the plaintiff occurs wherever the facts already established is such that the proper and natural inference immediately arising from them is that the injury complained of was caused by the defendant's negligence, or where the event charged as negligence 'tells its own story' of negligence on the part of the defendant, the story so told being clear and unambiguous'.

The maxim Res Ipsa Loquitur is used in cases where the proof or evidence or an object of an accident directly points out towards the guilt of the defendant and shows that defendant himself is the cause of such accident. Mere proof of the accident does not prove the guilt of the defendant and so in such cases, this maxim cannot be used. It is a rule of evidence and not a rule of law.

The maxim of Res Ipsa Loquitur applies in situations like:

  1. The cause of the accident was under the management or control of the defendant
  2. The accident is such as in the ordinary course of things and would not happen if those who have the management use proper care
In the cases where this maxim is used, the burden of proof shifts from the plaintiff to the defendant and then the defendant has to disprove the accusations made upon him.

Background of Res Ipsa Loquitur

This maxim has a Latin origin and when literally translated means:
the thing itself speaks, but it is more commonly known as the thing speaks for itself. As per the known reports, this phrase was used first by Cicero in his defense speech Pro Milone. In the history of common law, the use of this phrase is first found in the case of Byrne v. Boadle. The facts of the case were that in 1863 in England, a barrel of flour fell from a two-storey building and hit the plaintiff's head, but the plaintiff could not acquire direct evidence against the defendant to allege negligence on his part. But the court held the judgment for the plaintiff and opined that the circumstances were different in this case, and there could be a presumption of negligence.

Elements of Res Ipsa Loquitur

  • The event that caused injury to the plaintiff would not have occurred if someone has not acted negligently.
  • The evidence presented rules out all the possibilities of the fault of the plaintiff or third party.
  • There is a duty of care of the defendant towards the plaintiff which he breached.

Essentials of Res Ipsa Loquitur

  • Presence of Negligence:
    For the element of Res Ipsa Loquitor to be made applicable in any case, the accident should be such as which could not have happened if ordinary course of things had happened without negligence. For instance, like in the case of Byrne v. Boadle, a barrel of flour cannot randomly fall on someone's head if the party is reasonably careful.

    In Municipal Corporation of Delhi v. Subhagwanti, 1966 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 top storey of the building, which had fallen, could be 40-45 years, having regard to the kind of mortar used.

    In these circumstances, 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 circumstantial evidence of the defendant's negligence.
  • Control by the defendant:
    The thing that has caused the damage must be under the direct control of the defendant or his representative. It is not always necessary that all the circumstances are under the defendant's control, but if the events leading up to the accidents were under the control of others besides the defendant, then the mere happening of the accident is insufficient evidence against the defendant. In Nihal Kaur v. Director, P.G.I., Chandigarh, 1996, 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.
  • Freedom from Contributory Negligence:
    The third essential for the principle is that the plaintiff or any third party did not cause or contribute to the injuries suffered by him. If it is found that the plaintiff or third party contributed to the act that caused damage to the plaintiff, then the principal shall not apply. In the case of Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation v. Krishnan, 1981, in an accident, the two buses brushed each other in such a way that the left hands of two passengers traveling in one of these buses were cut off below the shoulder joint. It was held that the accident itself speaks volumes about the negligence on the part of drivers of both vehicles. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur was applied to the case and, in the absence of any satisfactory explanation, the defendants were held liable.

Res Ipsa Loquitur in Medical Practice

Res Ipsa Loquitur is used in medical practice when any foreign matter is left inside the body of the patient after the surgery due to which the patient suffers harm or death is caused of such patient. Res Ipsa Loquitur is used in cases when during the medical practice, an act of negligence is committed and due to which the patient suffers harm. For Res Ipsa Loquitur, to come into force, it needs to be shown that there is any object or thing which proves the act of negligence directly.

In A.H. Khodwa v. the State of Maharashtra, 1996 the patient had undergone a sterilization operation after childbirth. A mop was left inside the abdomen of the patient, by the doctor performing the operation. This resulted in peritonitis, and the patient died after a few days.  The presumption of negligence by the doctor performing the operation was raised and the State running the hospital was held liable for the same.

In Mrs. Aparna Dutta v. Apollo Hospital Enterprises Ltd., 2000, the plaintiff got herself operated on for the removal of her uterus in the defendant hospital, as there was diagnosed to be a cyst in the area of one of her ovaries. Due to the negligence of the hospital surgeon, who performed the operation, an abdominal pack was left in her abdomen. The same was removed by a second surgery. Leaving foreign matter in the body during the operation was held to be a case of res ipsa loquitur. The doctor who performed the operation and the hospital authorities were held liable to pay compensation of Rs. 5,80,000 to the plaintiff for their negligence.

So, this way Res Ipsa Loquitur is used in cases where any foreign material is left inside the body due to negligence and causes harm to patients.

Res Ipsa Loquitur in Road Accidents

This maxim is also applied in cases of Road Accidents where there are several incidents of negligence committed by drivers or passengers which leads to the accidents. Res ipsa loquitur is only applied to cases where the injury that occurred could only have been caused by negligence. There are two conditions which are to be looked upon to apply Res Ipsa Loquitur to any case of road accidents. These are as follows:

The type of accident that occurred must be usually a result of negligence - Accidents can occur in many ways but while applying res ipsa loquitur it is first seen that in which manner the injury has occurred or the specific manner of the accident is looked upon. It is to be noted that in such cases it is to be found out that whether the defendant could have avoided causing injury by exercising more care. If the injury caused to the patient as a result of the accident was inevitable which means severe enough to cause the death of the victim, then res ipsa loquitur may be defeated.

The defendant had sole control over the conditions that led to injury - Res ipsa loquitur may not be applied if the victim shared some responsibility for the injury. For example, if a person is taking on a cell phone and is distracted while walking on the road and suddenly a truck driver takes an illegal turn and hits the person then the application of res ipsa loquitur may not fit properly. In these cases, the court may reduce the amount of a victim's damages under contributory negligence.

Res Ipsa Loquitur can be applied if the defendant is solely responsible for the conditions which caused the accident or the defendant is responsible for the negligence himself. It is to be looked upon that the defendant had the sole control over the conditions of the accident.

In Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation v. Krishnan, 1981, in an accident, the two buses brushed each other in such a way that the left hands of two passengers traveling in one of these buses were cut off below the shoulder joint. It was held that the accident itself speaks volumes about the negligence on the part of drivers of both vehicles. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur was applied to the case and, in the absence of any satisfactory explanation, the defendants were held liable.

In Gangaram v. Kamlabai, 1979, the front tyre of a taxi burst as a result of which that taxi left the road, when on its offside and turned somersault. Two passengers traveling in the taxi got killed in the accident. The high speed of the car was apparent from the fact that the car had left drag marks nearly 20 feet on the Kutcha road and then it toppled. It was held that the obvious inference in this case that the tyre, which had burst, was old and unroadworthy, and the speed of the taxi was excessive, and, therefore, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur was applicable to the case. The defendants could not give any satisfactory explanation to rebut the presumption of negligence and they were held liable.

In Agya Kaur v. Pepsu Road Transport Corporation, 1980, a rickshaw going on the correct side was hit by a bus coming on the wrong side of the road. The speed of the bus was so high that it, after hitting the rickshaw, also hit an electric pole on the wrong side. It was held that from these acts, the only inference which would be drawn was that the driver of the bus was negligent. The defendant Corporation whose driver had caused the accident was held liable.

Where the maxim does not apply

The maxim res ipsa loquitur applies when the only inference from the facts is that the accident could not have occurred but for the defendant's negligence. The maxim does not apply in cases where different inferences are possible or where the reason for the negligence is unknown. In K. Sobha v. Dr. Mrs. Raj Kumari Unithan, 1999, the plaintiff, aged 35 years, who had an 8-year-old son, approached the defendant, a gynaecologist, 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 vagina 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 circumstances, it was 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 the case of R.S.R.T.C. v. Smt. Sagar Bai, 1999, 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 circumstances of the case and the Rajasthan State Road Transport Corporation could be held liable only after its negligence was proved.

So, Res Ipsa Loquitur is applied primarily in all prima facie cases, where at first instance the negligence on part of the defendant is evident and without which the injury would not have occurred. In such a case, it is presumed that the defendant is negligent and it is on him to prove why he is not negligent. The maxim is related to the negligence of a person and generally is applied to such cases where the act has been caused by the negligence of a person.

Res Ipsa Loquitur is applicable in cases of road accidents and medical practice where the harm is caused due to negligence of one or both parties. So, the application of res ipsa loquitur directly proves the act committed by the defendant and helps in proving a person liable.

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