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Circumstantial Negligence: Res Ipsa Loquitur

A plaintiff/claimant has the burden of proof in a case. In other words, it is their responsibility to show the existence of facts which demonstrate they should recover in their case. In a negligence action, therefore, the plaintiff/claimant must prove that there was a certain (1) standard of care which was (2) breached and which (3) proximately caused (4) damages. In certain cases, though, negligence has clearly occurred but there is a practical problem of showing specifically what happened. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur (“the things speaks for itself”) is often appropriate in these cases.

The Missouri Supreme Court has declared that res ipsa loquitur applies when (a) the occurrence resulting in injury was such as does not ordinarily happen if those in charge use due care; (b) the instrumentalities involved were under the management and control of the defendant; and (c) the defendant possesses superior knowledge or means of information as to the cause of the occurrence. As stated, the doctrine is used in cases in which it is not clear exactly what caused an injury, but all the probable causes are within the control or right to control of defendant.

Does meeting all of the elements of res ipsa mean you automatically win the case? No. The legal effect of a res ipsa  showing is that it shifts the burden on the defendant to prove that no negligence occurred. Thus, res ipsa should really be understood as simply alleviating the plaintiff/claimant the burden of direct proof.

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