The Doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur means the “thing speaks for itself”
Resp ipsa loquitur is a helpful doctrine allowing a blameless injured plaintiff to create an allowable inference of the defendant’s want of due care when the following conditions have been shown:
- The occurrence itself ordinarily bespeaks negligence;
- The instrumentality [causing the injury] was within the defendant’s exclusive control; and
- There is no indication in the circumstances that the injury was the result of the plaintiff’s own voluntary act or neglect.
The doctrine “places the duty of producing evidence on the party who has superior knowledge or opportunity for explanation of the causative circumstances.” Buckelew v. Grossbard, 87 N.J. 512, 526 (1981). Res ipsa loquitur “in effect creates a permissive presumption that a set of facts furnish reasonable grounds for the inference that if due care had been exercised by the person having control of the instrumentality causing the injury, the mishap would not have occurred.” Szalontai v. Yazbo’s Sports Café, 183 N.J. 386, 398 (2005) (quoting Brown v. Racquet Club of Bricktown, 95 N.J. 280, 288-89 (1984)). The jury is free to accept or reject that permissible inference. Ibid.
In other words, a glass vase explodes while a florist is holding it, and missile-like shards of glass lacerate a nearby blameless victim’s tendons and muscles. The victim of this incident invokes the legal doctrine of res ipsa loquitur to create an inference that absent the negligence of the florist in the manner in which he held the glass vase, this event would never happen. This is a tough road to hoe, especially without a liability expert to rule out other probable causes for the vase exploding.
The trial court granted defendants a directed verdict at the close of the caterer’s proofs before the jury, mainly because the victim had not retained a liability expert to explain why the vase had shattered. We reverse, concluding that it was not essential for this plaintiff to have retained a liability expert in these circumstances.
On February 15, 2009, plaintiff Martin Mayer, a professional caterer, was setting up for an engagement party at a synagogue in Passaic. Defendant Samuel Grunwald, a florist employed by co-defendant, Once Upon a Rose, Inc., also was at the synagogue with his wife, getting the floral arrangements in place for that same engagement party.
Meanwhile, Mr. Grunwald and his wife were setting up the floral arrangements in the room. Mr. and Mrs. Grunwald brought all the floral materials to the synagogue, and they assembled the arrangements at the event. The floral vases were stored in individual boxes, which had then been placed in milk crates. The Grunwalds used two similar types of vases, which were both made of glass and had the same width, except some were a couple of inches taller than the others. They assembled five or six arrangements at the synagogue.
According to Mrs. Grunwald’s testimony:
- The same glass vases had previously been used between ten and thirty times.
- Mrs. Grunwald stated that she had checked all the vases that day for chips and cracks and found none.
- She did not remove any vases while making the floral arrangements that day.
- However, she insisted that she would have removed any vase if it had been found chipped or cracked.
- During the course of setting up for the engagement party, Mr. Grunwald began to move a floral vase from one table to another.
- The tables were ten to fifteen feet apart.
- The vase in question was a tall glass square, which was flat on all sides. It had bamboo and flowers extending a few feet over the top and was nearly filled with water.
- From about ten to twelve feet away, plaintiff observed Mr. Grunwald hold the vase with outstretched arms.
- According to plaintiff, Mr. Grunwald appeared to be applying pressure with the palms of his hands on the sides of the vase, about halfway up on opposite sides.
No one else was touching the vase as Mr. Grunwald lifted it. He testified that he felt the vase “caving in” and a sensation of the vase pressing inwards. Upon observing Mr. Grunwald attempting to carry the vase on his own, plaintiff ran towards Mr. Grunwald to help him. According to plaintiff, as he approached, he said in an undertone, “you’re going to hurt yourself.” Mr. Grunwald testified that he had carried the vase in a different manner. As he recalled it, his hands were on the sides near the bottom of the vase, with two or three fingers underneath it. According to Mr. Grunwald, he did not press the vase against his chest or stomach, but rather carried it with partially extended arms. As plaintiff reached his hands under the vase, the glass vase shattered. Shards of broken glass fell into plaintiff’s hands. The glass shards severely cut plaintiff’s hands, which began bleeding. He was in “excruciating pain.”
Plaintiff suffered multiple tendon cuts and nerve damage from the glass shards. He underwent emergency surgery that same day. Plaintiff had physical therapy for over six months to restore movement to his hands. His injuries from this incident have caused him permanent scarring, a loss of grip strength, and various alleged lifestyle restrictions.
In this ensuing lawsuit, plaintiff invoked the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. He argued that he was blameless in connection with the incident, that the vase had been in defendants’ exclusive control, and that it was not likely to have exploded in the absence of defendants’ fault. Defendants, meanwhile, took the position that this was a spontaneous accident that they could not have reasonably prevented.
The trial court decision
After plaintiff rested his case, defendants moved for a directed verdict. The trial court granted their motion. In the course of his oral ruling, the judge observed that he had “two problems” with plaintiff’s theory of recovery:
Number one, with regard to pressure having any part whatsoever in the implosion or collapse of this vase, the [c]ourt determines that is an issue that would require expert testimony. It would be extremely speculative and impermissible to allow the jury to speculate as to whether the way the vase was being carried somehow played a part in its failure. If in fact that is a theory to be pursued, that theory would require expert testimony in order to deal with the issue of . . . how much pressure, what type of pressure, thickness of glass, . . . [and] other factors and variables that would impact or support such a theory. And we do not have that . . . in this case.
The second problem that the [c]ourt has is whether it is more probable under these circumstances in order to invoke the res ipsa doctrine whether in fact the accident bespeaks negligence. And that is whether it is more probable than not that [Mr. Grunwald's] negligence was a proximate cause of the mishap. We don’t know what happened. And the issue is . . . is it more probable than not that [Mr. Grunwald's] negligence was the proximate cause of the mishap?
There are other potential explanations. And as [plaintiff's counsel] points out, he need not rule out those other explanations, but there are other explanations. One looming explanation is that there could have been a product defect. . . .”
The Appellate Division reversed the Trial Court
Key take aways
- An important aspect of the res ipsa loquitur doctrine is its role at trial in repelling a defendant’s motion for a directed verdict. “Once res ipsa loquitur is established, the case should go to the jury unless defendant’s countervailing proof is so strong as to admit of no reasonable doubt as to the absence of negligence.”
- “In a case in which res ipsa loquitur applies, a directed verdict against the plaintiff can occur only if the defendant produces evidence which will destroy any reasonable inference of negligence, or so completely contradict it that reasonable men could no longer accept it.”
- The res ipsa loquitur doctrine has been successfully applied on several occasions to cases involving exploding glass bottles. See Bornstein v. Metro. Bottling Co., 26 N.J. 263, 274-75 (1958); see also Stolle v. Anheuser-Busch, Inc., 271 S.W. 497, 499-500 (Mo. 1925); Can. Dry Ginger Ale Co. v. Jochum, 43 A.2d 42, 43-44 (D.C. 1945).
- Although those bottling cases are somewhat distinguishable from the present case because they involved pressurized glass, they do illustrate the fundamental proposition that the res ipsa doctrine can apply to accidents involving a glass vessel that had been in a defendant’s exclusive control.Here, the trial court declined to allow the jury to consider any inference of negligence on the part of defendants. A focal point of the court’s decision was its belief that plaintiff was obligated to present a liability expert to explain why the glass vase shattered. We disagree that such an expert witness was required.
- In Jerista v. Murray, 185 N.J. 175, 195 (2005), a leading case in which the plaintiff invoked the res ipsa loquitur doctrine, the Supreme Court concluded that expert testimony was not required for a “res ipsa inference” to be made with respect to injuries caused by an automatic door. The plaintiffs in Jerista brought a malpractice claim against their prior attorney, whose inaction had allegedly led to the dismissal of their negligence complaint against a supermarket.. The defendant attorney argued that he had not caused his former clients harm, because their lack of supporting expert testimony on liability would have prevented them anyway from obtaining a res ipsa inference, and consequently they did not have a provable claim in the underlying suit. The Supreme Court rejected this court’s “sweeping suggesti[on] . . . that in almost all complex instrumentality cases a res ipsa inference will be conditioned on the production of expert testimony.”
- Instead, the Court determined that the pertinent question is “whether based on common knowledge the balance of probabilities favors negligence, thus rendering fair the drawing of a res ipsa inference.”
- As to the necessity of liability experts, the Court instructed in Jerista that “[o]nly when the res ipsa inference falls outside of the common knowledge of the fact finder and depends on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge is expert testimony required.” see also N.J.R.E. 702 (limiting the admission of expert testimony to evidence or issues requiring “specialized knowledge” for a fact finder to understand). “A jury does not need an expert to tell it what it already knows.”
- The Court concluded in Jerista that the plaintiffs could have obtained a res ipsa inference absent expert testimony because, even though automatic doors are complex machines, “based on common knowledge” it is improbable that such a door would close unexpectedly on a person unless it was negligently maintained. Ibid. “When the average juror can deduce what happened without resort to scientific or technical knowledge, expert testimony is not mandated.”
At first blush, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur appears to be a super wonderful tool for plaintiff’s and their lawyers. However, upon closer inspection, plaintiff’s soon learn that it is very difficult to carry the day with res ipsa, and even more difficult when it is applied without the benefit of a liability expert.
In this case, consider the battle faced by the victim’s lawyer. The attorney already presented the plaintiff’s case at trial and the judge threw it out on defendant’s motion for a directed verdict. The lawyer appealed the directed verdict to the appellate division; where it was reversed and remanded for trial.
Even if plaintiff gets to a jury, will a jury find in his favor?
Kudos to the plaintiff’s lawyer for his efforts on behalf of his client. However, whenever possible stay away from res ipsa loquitur.