Res Ipsa loquitur – An overview with reference to case laws
Res Ipsa loquitur is a legal maxim used as the proof of negligence which means thing speaks for itself. This concept is used to prove negligence. In personal injury law, the concept of res ipsa loquitur operates as an evidentiary rule that allows plaintiffs to establish a rebuttable presumption of negligence on the part of the defendant through the use of circumstantial evidence.
The general rule says that the burden to prove the negligence lies on the plaintiff, the plaintiff not only has to show the facts of the defendants’ negligence but also the proof. But according to this maxim, it means that the facts are so obvious that the plaintiff doesn’t have to show any evidence in order to establish the negligence on the defendants’ part. There is a prima facie scenario that says that the defendant is liable for the wrongs committed to the plaintiff.
For example, if Mr. A was driving his motorcycle on the footpath and he hit a person named Z who was walking on the footpath. So here, the fact itself is very much clear that Mr. A was negligent as the footpath is meant for walking purposes, not for driving. So here Mr. Z who is the plaintiff in this case doesn’t have to prove anything except the facts in the case in order to establish negligence on Mr. A’s part.
The elements of res Ipsa loquitur
- There must be the presence of negligence
- Only the defendant is responsible for the negligence no one else even the plaintiff
- There must be a duty of care to the plaintiff by the defendant
There must be the presence of negligence
It is obvious here because we are establishing proof in regard to negligence. So, the presence of negligence is the primary thing that has to be present in order to use the maxim res Ipsa loquitur. Going back to the example given above if Mr. A would not have acted negligently by riding his bike on the footpath he would not have hit Mr. Z. so here it is very much clear that there was the presence of negligence.
Only the defendant is responsible for the negligence no one else even the plaintiff
When we use the maxim res Ipsa loquitur the act of negligence must be the result of only the defendants’ negligence and no other party even the plaintiff. If it was due to plaintiffs’ negligence then it would have called contributory negligence, also if the negligence was the result of the act of a third party then also the principle of res Ipsa loquitur was not applicable. So, it must be noted that in the case where only the defendant is liable for the negligence, the principle of res Ipsa loquitur will applicable.
There must be a duty of care to the plaintiff by the defendant
In order to establish negligence, it is very important to note that the defendant should have a duty of care towards the plaintiff when we use the word “duty” which means that the duty must be legal in nature, not moral or any other duty. If there is no duty of care then it cannot be said that the defendant is negligent.
For example, if Mr. X sees a person named Mr. Y drowning in a pool and he doesn’t try to save his life, here Mr. X may have a moral duty to save Mr. Y but he doesn’t have any legal duty to save him. So, it cannot be said that Mr. X acted negligently towards Mr. Y.
Some important points while considering res Ipsa loquitur
- The application of this principle shifts the liability of the burden of proof from the plaintiff to the defendant. Instead of the plaintiff proving the negligence, the defendant has to disapprove of the facts.
- The plaintiff doesn’t have to bring proof or doesn’t have to prove anything in the court of law under the principle.
- This principle has no application where it is impossible to determine who was negligent.
- It is used where it can be determined that the defendant is prima facie negligent.
- The maxim only shifts the onus of proof where prima facie fact is clear.
- Res Ipsa loquitur is used where the evidence to prove the liability of the defendant is not available to the plaintiff.
Important case laws based on res Ipsa loquitur
- The municipal corporation of Delhi vs Subhagwanti (The clock tower case).
- The state of Punjab vs modern cultivators.
The fact of the case
A clock tower at Chandani chowk Delhi collapsed as a result of which 3 persons died and the suit was filed by the heirs of the deceased. The building was approximately 80 years old. The reason for the collapse was the thrust of the arches on the top portion. If the building was investigated for the purpose it would have known that the building would fall. The after the collapse, in the investigation it was found that the condition of the building was so bad that it was reduced to power without any cementing properties.
The court held that the principle of res Ipsa loquitur would apply in the present case and the municipal corporation of Delhi is liable for the damage caused. As it is prima facie evident from the fact that the municipal corporation of Delhi acted negligently in not maintaining the clock tower due to which it fell down.
The state of Punjab vs modern cultivators
The fact of the case
Due to the flood by the canal belonging to the state of Punjab the plaintiff suffered loss.
The trial court held that the state of Punjab was liable and further this decision was upheld by the first appellate court and later on by the Hon’ble high court. But in the high court, the court reduced the number of damages awarded to the plaintiff. Finally, both the parties the plaintiff and the defendant “state of Punjab” approached the Hon’ble supreme court. The court ruled in the Favour of the plaintiff and held that the defendant “state of Punjab” was negligent by applying the rule of Res Ipsa loquitur.
Author: Rohit Soni,
NMIMS Kirit P Mehta School of Law, First year student