Res Ipsa Loquitor

Mahima Gherani

In the common law, “Res Ipsa Loquitor”, a Latin word which means the thing speaks for itself. Prima facie it appears to be a simple and easy maxim to understand and apply. Application of Res Ipsa Loquitor shifts the burden of proof on the defendant. Generally, in any case it is the plaintiff who has to provide the evidence to prove the defendants acts.

The expression Res Ipsa Loquitor is not a doctrine but a mode of inferential reasoning applying to incidents of an unknown cause. The legal maxim was first formulated by Baron Pollock in the 1863 English case Byrne v Boadle, where Bryne was struck by a barrel of flour falling from a second story window. The court’s presumption was that a barrel of flour falling out of a second storey window is itself sufficient evidence of negligence.

It is not a cause of action but rather a rule of evidence. Res Ipsa Loquitor is usually used when there is no direct evidence of the defendant’s negligence. The facts presented in the court must satisfy three basic requirements i.e. inference of negligence, exclusive control by the defendant and freedom from contributory negligence.

Once the court decides that the facts of a particular case warrant the application of res ipsa, it instructs the jury to carry on the basic principles and it is the function of the jury to decide the credibility and weight of the inference to be drawn from the facts. Everything depends on the facts of a particular place.

This test finds its applicability in accident and medical cases, in case of offences which are unintended and the commission of the offence itself was not known, in matters where all the procedures have not been followed and other cases of negligence.

This rule cannot be applied where reasonable care has been taken and what has happened is beyond the ordinary control of the defendant. This maxim is of much relevance today considering the globalisation and the increasing cases of absolute liability which can be witnessed in the case of M.C.Mehta v. Union of India and many recent cases.