Proving Liability in a Products Liability Action: Res Ipsa Loquitur

June 24, 2013

Typically, expert testimony is required to establish liability in products liability cases.  Sometimes, however, liability can be proven through the use of the legal doctrine res ipsa loquitur.  Res ipsa loquitur is a Latin phrase meaning “the thing speaks for itself.”  It is a method of proving that a tort occurred in certain types of civil trials. In other words, it permits a plaintiff in certain tort cases to simply invoke res ipsa loquitur to prove the negligence element of a tort cause of action.

Typically, when a plaintiff sues a defendant for a tort, the plaintiff must prove several elements of a case. First, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant intentionally or negligently caused the injuries to occur. Second, the plaintiff must prove that he actually suffered damage as a result of the defendant’s actions.  When res ipsa loquitur is invoked, the doctrine permits the plaintiff to win his case without explicitly proving negligence. It, essentially, is a doctrine that says that the action that caused the injury was so obviously negligent that the action speaks for itself and no additional proof is required. If res ipsa loquitur applies and is accepted by the court, the plaintiff only has to prove that he incurred damages as a result of the defendant’s actions in order to win the case.

In New Jersey, in order to invoke the doctrine, the plaintiff must prove: (a) the occurrence itself normally bespeaks negligence; (b) the instrumentality was within the defendant’s exclusive control; and (c) there is no indication in the circumstances that the injury was the result of the plaintiffs own voluntary act or neglect.  An expert, however, must establish liability where “the res ipsa claim falls outside of the common knowledge of the factfinder and depends on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge.”  Expert testimony is required in products liability actions when the defective product involves a complex instrumentality. Scanlon v. General Motors Corp., 65 N.J. 582, 591 (1974).  In the case of relatively simple products, expert testimony is not necessary. Scanlon, supra, 65 N.J. at 594. Complex instrumentalities requiring expert testimony include the idle cam in an automobile carburetor, Scanlon; the emergency unlocking mechanism in a railroad car sliding door, Rocco v. New Jersey Transit Rail Operations, 330 N.J.Super. 320 (App. Div. 2000); the locking mechanism of a gurney, Lauder v. Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps, 368 N.J.Super. 320 (App. Div. 2004); a facial machine that emitted scalding water and steam, Sparrow v. La Cachet, Inc., 305 N.J.Super. 301 (App. Div. 1997); and an escalator handrail, Jiminez v. GNOC Corp., 286 N.J.Super. 533 (App. Div.), certif. denied 145 N.J. 374 (1996).

If you have been injured as a result of using a defective or dangerous product, contact us today.  We offer a free initial consultation and accept products liability cases on a contingent fee basis.

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