Res Ipsa Loquitur in Washington Courts

The Washington Court of Appeals recently released an unpublished decision discussing the tort doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur (RIL).  RIL is a fancy legal term that roughly translates to “the thing speaks for itself.”

In an ordinary tort suit, the plaintiff has the burden of introducing evidence that proves that negligence of the defendant happened.  If the plaintiff does nothing or does too little, the plaintiff loses, even if the defendant does nothing at all.  The doctrine of RIL provides that in certain tort cases, the facts will give rise to a presumption of negligence in the defendant.  This has the effect of shifting the burden to the defendant to disprove that negligence occurred.

When properly used by a plaintiff, RIL is an important tool in seeking relief.  Generally, the doctrine applies when a plaintiff is not in possession of evidence or facts to show that the cause of an injury was due to negligence, but nevertheless the very nature of the cause of injury is such that negligence must have been the cause.  The new case is called Harris v. Wabey (172 Wn. App. 1028).  In Harris, a wheel came off of a moving van and struck another vehicle.  The Court of Appeals recognized that Washington courts have used the doctrine of RIL in cases where wheels become dislodged from axles on moving vehicles.

However, invoking the doctrine of RIL does not mean that the plaintiff automatically wins.  It simply means that the proverbial ball is now in the court of the defendant.  If the defendant introduces facts and evidence that proves that he or she did not commit negligence, or that another source did, then the defendant may be entitled to summary judgment, or at least the issue would then go to the jury to decide.

In Harris, the driver had entrusted maintenance of her vehicle to a tire repair shop, who did work on her tires.  She also introduced expert testimony featuring an expert opinion that the cause of the wheel dislodging was due to the wheel nuts that attached the wheel to the axle were either over tightened or under tightened.  These two pieces of information in combination were enough to persuade the Court that the defendant had rebutted the presumption of negligence under the RIL doctrine.

The types of cases that could give rise to a RIL theory are endless.  For example in Harris, the Court discussed another case where a surgeon left a scalpel in a plaintiff’s knee after closing surgical incisions; RIL was used by the plaintiff in that case.  There could be many others.  The lesson learned here is that the law has a system set up for situations where a plaintiff might not be in possession of critical knowledge that it would need to prove its case.  In some instances, this will not be a barrier to getting into court and ultimately gaining relief.

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