Court Holds that Train Panel Injury Results in Summary Judgment in Plaintiff’s Favor Under Doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur

In Barney-Yeboah v. Metro-North Commuter Railroad, the Appellate Division, First Department held that plaintiff was entitled to summary judgment on the issue of liability under the doctrine of resipsa loquitur.

Here are the facts of this personal injury case:

Plaintiff, a passenger on defendant’s train, was allegedly injured when a ceiling panel in the train car swung open and struck her in the head. Plaintiff testified that she was seated on the train when she heard a loud sound, and the next thing she knew, she was on her knees with people around her yelling. After the commotion, she looked up and saw a hanging panel — a cabinet utility door that had hit her in the head.

The court held that “[t]he motion court improperly denied plaintiff’s motion on the issue of liability based on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur”, noting that “[w]hile summary judgment is rarely granted in res ipsa loquitur cases, it is appropriate in exceptional case[s], such as this one, where the plaintiff’s circumstantial proof is so convincing and the defendant’s response so weak that the inference of defendant’s negligence is inescapable”.

A res ipsa loquitur claim has three elements: “(1) the accident is of a kind that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of defendant’s negligence; (2) the instrumentality causing the accident was within defendant’s exclusive control; and (3) the accident was not due to any voluntary action or contribution by plaintiff.”

Applying the law, the court stated:

Plaintiff met all three elements with her submission of witness testimony and the testimony of defendant’s foreman. The foreman testified that the train’s HVAC and ventilation system was accessible through the ceiling panel that hit plaintiff. He also testified that to his knowledge, no one but defendant’s personnel accessed the ceiling panels and that he had no explanation for how the accident occurred. The foreman described the panel as being fastened to the ceiling with four screws outside and two safety latches and a safety chain inside.