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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Opinion Speaks For Itself: Western District Of Pennsylvania Finds That Res Ipsa Loquitur Is Not A Cause Of Action

Res ipsa loquitur (Latin for "the thing speaks for itself") is an evidentiary rule that a plaintiff can use when he has evidence that the defendant very likely injured him through negligence but cannot prove the particular manner in which the accident was caused. See Hector v. Christus Health Gulf Coast, 175 S.W.3d 832, 837 (Tex.App.-Houston 2005). The basic significance of res ipsa loquitur is that it allows the circumstantial evidence submitted by the plaintiff to get to a jury, and thus prevents summary judgment for the defendant on a cause of action sounding in negligence. As these descriptions and the recent opinion of the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania in Tennis v. Ford Motor Co., 2010 WL 2978073 (W.D.Pa. 2010), make clear, res ipsa loquitur is merely a rule of evidence and not a cause of action.

In Tennis,

a fire...ignited unexpectedly and spontaneously from a 1997 Ford Expedition while it was parked inside of a warehouse on or about December 23, 2007....As a result of the fire, Plaintiffs allege[d] that they suffered "loss of income, interruption of their business, loss [sic] of improvements to the warehouse, business relocation expenses, loss of use of their money, loss of use of their property, damage to their property, loss of contents in the building, and incurred interest expenses to finance the repairs."...Plaintiffs claim[ed] that the smoke and heat from the fire damaged their real and personal property.

The plaintiffs thus brought a complaint against Ford, alleging the following causes of action:

(I) Strict Liability, (II) Negligence, (III) Breach of Implied Warranty of Merchantability, (IV) Fraud, (V) Negligent Misrepresentation, (VI) Fraud by Non-Disclosure, (VII) Breach of Contract, (VIII) Res Ipsa Loquitur, and (IX) Punitive Damages.

Ford, inter alia, moved to dismiss the count claiming res ipsa loquitur as an independent cause of action, citing Fassbinder v. Pa. R.R. Co., 322 F.2d 859, 863 (3rd Cir.1963) to support its argument that res ipsa loquitur is a rule of evidence and not a cause of action, a ground for recovery, or an issue. The United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania agreed finding that

res ipsa loquitur is "only a shorthand expression for circumstantial proof of negligence, a rule of evidence."...It is "neither a rule of procedure nor one of substantive tort law."...Res ipsa loquitur is also not a theory of recovery, but rather a rule of circumstantial evidence....As a rule of evidence, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur “is brought into play where the situation presented makes it applicable. It does not have to be pleaded in the complaint or noticed by specific designation to the adverse party at a pre-trial or at trial, since it is neither a cause of action not a ground for recovery, nor an issue.'"

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2010/08/res-ipsa--tennis-v-v-ford-motor-coslip-copy-2010-wl-2978073wdpa2010.html

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