Res Ipsa What? A Lawyer’s Shortcut in a Negligence Case By on August 20, 2015

Most personal injury lawsuits are based on a legal theory called negligence. The basic concept of a negligence lawsuit is that one person wrongfully caused injury to another. In some cases, however, a shortcut called “res ipsa loquitur” may be applied. Loosely translated, this Latin phrase means “the thing speaks for itself”.

Generally speaking, a negligence lawsuit in Montana requires four elements:

  • The existence of a duty from one person to another;
  • A breach of that duty;
  • Causation of the injury; and
  • Damages suffered as a result of the breach.
The theory of res ipsa loquitur is sometimes relevant to the causation part of a case. However, it may be used when there is only one explanation for how an injury occurred.

A recent Montana Supreme Court case illustrates the application of res ipsa loquitur in a lawsuit for negligence. In 2010, a couple hired a heating and cooling business to install a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system in their home. While the HVAC installer was working, he heard a popping noise in another area of the house. When he looked into it, he discovered a fire in the mechanical room of the couple’s basement. Although the installer called the fire department, the couple’s home was destroyed by the fire.

The couple sued the installer but lost at the trial of the case. They appealed, arguing that the trial judge improperly refused to instruct the jury about the applicability of res ipsa loquitur to the cause of the fire. The Supreme Court disagreed, finding no error.

The Court explained that in the case before it, the couple had argued that the fire was caused by the installer’s faulty extension cord; the installer, on the other hand, had argued that the fire was the result of a faulty splice in the service line. Both parties had experts testify about their respective theories at trial.

Because each of the two alternate theories were plausible, the trial judge had not made a mistake in refusing to give the res ipsa loquitur jury instruction. The Court further explained that such an instruction was not usually proper in fire cases in which the cause was unknown. If there had been no evidence of the faulty service line splice, it may have been appropriate for the trial court to have given the res ipsa loquitur instruction.

Sometimes, it occurs that only one thing could have caused an injury or damages. When that is the case, res ipsa loquitur can ease the burden on the person bringing the lawsuit. If you have suffered an injury in the Western Montana area, including Missoula, you can rely on the attorneys at Tipp & Buley to understand how to present your case to a judge and jury. Please visit us today online or call 406-549-5186 to make an appointment..

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