When an Accident Implies Negligence: The Principle of Res Ipsa Loquitur

Michael GrossmanMarch 14, 2017 5 minutes

One can't look at any controversy in the courts without hearing someone getting worked up about "judges making laws." While judges shouldn't rewrite laws from the bench in the face of a clearly defined statute, our common law legal system actually encourages them to speak on issues where the law is silent. These well-established principles give judges freedom for action, and in turn that freedom to act keeps our legal system flexible, even when times change.

Take for example the duties that we owe to one another. While many of these duties have been written into the law over many years, our society evolves too quickly for the legislature to possibly spell out every duty that we owe to one another. These legal vacuums are filled with judge-made law, which safeguards us from situations in which new technologies or products harm people without a chance at justice for those victims.

One of the crucial legal doctrines that guides judges when they lack guidance is the idea of res ipsa loquitur. This phrase, lifted from Latin, literally means "the thing speaks for itself." Many times, the only possible explanation for how an accident could have happened is that someone was negligent. Without this legal principle, if the legislature were silent about a duty, then it would be difficult or impossible for victims to get justice for their injury. Consequently, if we didn't have res ipsa loquitor, the price of innovations as well as freak occurrences, too few to require legislative attention, would be paid by the victims of someone else's negligence.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand how this doctrine works is to take an accident for which we already have a clearly defined duty and pretend it does't exist. The most obvious duty for this exercise is the duty that drivers owe one another to maintain a safe speed in order to avoid colliding with other vehicles and people. Hypothetically, if this duty didn't exist, would a victim still be able to get justice?

Tragedy on I-10: March 6, 2017

According to officials with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), two men were killed and three more were seriously injured when a tractor-trailer collided with a traffic control truck on Interstate 10 in Culberson County.

The accident occurred Monday afternoon, approximately 12 miles east of the city of Van Horn. Reports indicate that the victims were part of a team contracted by DPS to do repair work on that section of the interstate. The cause of the crash has not yet been determined, but investigators say that the westbound 18-wheeler, driven by 24-year-old Florida man Muzaffar Ummatov, collided with an unoccupied Ford pickup truck hauling a trailer, which then crashed into the workers' traffic control truck, sending it into the group of workers near the vehicle.

The day after the collision, DPS released the identities of three of the five victims. 21-year-old Juan Madrid and 38-year-old Christopher Guerra were the two men killed by the crash. Three other men, including 30-year-old Francisco Hernandez of Tornillo, were airlifted to a nearby hospital with serious injuries. Their current condition is unknown, but we hope they have a full and swift recovery.

Making a Logical (and Legal) Connection

As mentioned before, res ipsa loquitur is Latin for "the thing speaks for itself." Legally speaking, it is a rule that allows negligence to be inferred by a jury in the absence of a clearly established legal duty. The circumstances of the accident are deemed sufficient to imply that a defendant owed a general, but not specifically defined duty and that there was no other way for the accident to have occurred but negligent behavior. The argument for "res ips," as it is often abbreviated, is composed of two main elements:

  1. One is considered negligent if he/she was considered responsible for whatever caused the injury (even when there is no specific evidence of an act of negligence).
  2. Without the occurrence of negligence, the accident would not have happened.

These elements were closely examined in Haddock v. Arnspiger 793 S.W.2d 948, 950 (Tex. 1990), a case in which res ipsa loquitur was deconstructed as it would apply to medical malpractice claims. You can find the text of the court's rendered opinion here.

If there weren't already a clearly defined duty to maintain speed so as not to hit other vehicles or people, how could the trucker be considered at fault in the Culberson County crash? We need only examine the known factors of the claim against the requirements of res ipsa loquitur to arrive at a theory of negligence:

  1. Look for the incident's cause in fact. This can be identified using the "but for" test:

    But for the 18-wheeler causing the initial collision, the plaintiffs would not have been injured and/or killed.

    In that statement, we see the first element of res ips, since it could be argued that the trucker, piloting the 18-wheeler that created the initial crash, was responsible for the resultant injuries and deaths.

  2. In the absence of an act of negligence, it's reasonable to think the accident would not have occurred at all. When a truck driver pays careful attention to the road, far fewer collisions are likely to occur. It seems almost tautological: "Without fewer actions that cause accidents, fewer accidents will be caused;" nevertheless, it seems to bear repeating. When the vehicle's in motion, there's no glancing at phone screens or trying to open a fresh bag of Doritos. No fiddling with the map directions or the radio settings. Clear eyes, common sense, can't lose.
    Implied in the act of driving is the duty to other motorists not to crash into them. A greater standard of care in exercising that duty is expected of anyone who drives professionally. If a trucker is performing his job correctly, the truck does not collide with other vehicles--say, unoccupied pickup trucks on the shoulder of the road. Instead the truck cruises past, making good time on its way to deliver a load of tchotchkes to a Target in Omaha.

Injury Caused by Negligence Deserves Compensation.

An accident, by its definition an unintentional act, happens because someone did something they didn't mean to do. The news is constantly abuzz with examples: The construction worker nudged the stack of bricks that fall onto passersby. Elsewhere, a hunter failed to practice good trigger discipline with a loaded weapon. A driver nodded off behind the wheel. A trucker glanced down at his map while going down the interstate. Innocent gestures all, with no malicious intent, but still exhibiting a disregard for potential consequences.

That's the core of negligence--actions without consideration of their effects. Without those moments of negligence, the accidents that followed would not have occurred: The bricks fell, the gun fired, the car ran off the road, and the truck crashed. No matter who witnesses the accident, it can be surmised by anyone who sees its result that negligence caused injury.

Even if we could foresee and create a legal duty for every possible situation where negligence could potentially injure someone, the process would be so time-consuming that our lawmakers would spend their entire legislative sessions coming up with legal duties for new technologies and products. In the event that they missed something, victims would be unable to take legal action against those who hurt them. As a result, large groups of people, injured in uncommon accidents would effectively be outside the protections of the law.

While some may decry judge-made law, rightfully so in certain instances, causes of action created from elastic doctrines like res ipsa loquitur allow the law to evolve at the speed of society. While other areas of our society and government are constantly playing catch-up to new technologies and social attitudes, res ipsa loquitur ensures that personal injury law keeps up with the times.