“Res Ipsa Loquitur” Applies in Personal Injury Case Arising From Collapsing Drain

In Valdez v. Upper Creston, LLC, 2022 NY Slip Op 00367 (NY App. Div. 1st Dept. Jan. 20, 2022), a personal injury case, the court unanimously affirmed the lower court’s order granting plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of liability against defendant.

In this premises liability case, the plaintiff (a resident of a halfway home in a building owned by defendant) was injured when, after finishing using the facilities in the residence’s bathroom, while reaching for a paper towel located above the toilet seat, she stepped on a drain cover on the floor, which then collapsed under her foot, causing her to twist her ankle and fall.

Plaintiff moved for summary judgment based on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, arguing that the evidence demonstrated defendant’s unequivocal liability.

The court explained the res ipsa loquitur doctrine as follows:

Under that doctrine, an inference of negligence may be drawn solely from the happening of the accident upon the theory that certain occurrences contain within themselves a sufficient basis for an inference of negligence. Where a plaintiff’s ‘prima facie proof is so convincing that the inference of negligence arising therefrom is inescapable and unrebutted, summary judgment on liability is proper. Res ipsa loquitur applies when a plaintiff establishes: (1) the event is of the kind that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone’s negligence; (2) the event was caused by an agency or instrumentality within the exclusive control of the defendant; and (3) the accident was not due to any voluntary action or contribution on the part of the plaintiff. [Cleaned up.]

Applying the law, the court held that the unrebutted evidence demonstrated that each of the three elements of the doctrine were satisfied:

To begin, drain covers do not collapse under a person’s foot without someone’s negligence. Furthermore, it has been established that Geo Reentry and Cornell Company were in exclusive control of the bathroom and its drain cover, and defendant’s suggestion that other residents using the bathroom would have removed their exclusive control is mere speculation. Finally, plaintiff’s uncontradicted testimony demonstrates that the accident was not caused by any voluntary action or contribution on her part. [Cleaned up.]

The court further explained that “[w]here a plaintiff’s prima facie evidence is so convincing that the inference of negligence arising therefrom is inescapable and unrebutted, summary judgment on liability is proper.”

That was the case here, since plaintiff’s testimony regarding the cause of the accident is uncontradicted – she twisted her ankle and fell when the drain cover collapsed after she stepped on it – and defendants did not present any evidence to suggest any other plausible explanation for the accident.

Defendant’s alleged lack of notice was unavailing, concluded the court, since notice is inferred when the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies.

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