Res Ipsa Loquitur Does Not Require “Sole Physical Access” to the Injury-Causing Instrumentality

The Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department recently held, in Hutchings v. Yuter, 2013 NY Slip Op 04988 (July 2, 2013), that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur was appropriately invoked.  There, plaintiff alleged that “a garage door suddenly fell and struck him on the head”, causing injury.

“Res ipsa loquitur” is Latin for “the thing itself speaks”.  In the context of negligence law, it is used to describe the situation where the happening of an accident implies negligence.

It is not, however, a separate theory of liability, but rather (as stated by New York’s highest court) “a common-sense application of the probative value of circumstantial evidence.”

For the doctrine to apply, a plaintiff must establish that:

  1. the accident is of a kind that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence;
  2. the instrumentality or agency causing the accident is in the exclusive control of the defendants; and
  3. the accident must not be due to any voluntary action or contribution by plaintiff.

In Hutchings, the court held:

The motion court correctly determined that res ipsa loquitur applies in this action involving an accident that occurred, according to plaintiff’s testimony, when a garage door suddenly fell and struck him on the head, since this is the type of event that does not normally occur in the absence of negligence. Notwithstanding defendants’ contentions that others could have had access to the garage door, plaintiff demonstrated sufficient exclusivity of control. Res ipsa loquitur does not require sole physical access to the instrumentality causing the injury and can be applied in situations where more than one defendant could have exercised exclusive control.

Defendant Yuter’s contradictory testimony concerning whether he was present and whether he activated the garage door was insufficient to warrant summary judgment dismissing the action as against him. Indeed, issues of credibility are not to be resolved on summary judgment.

Therefore, the court affirmed the denial of defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

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