This article was written by Kavya Mathur National Law University, Jodhpur.

The doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur was evolved over a period of time by the Courts of Law to reduce the hardships and onus of procedural presentation of evidence on the Plaintiff. The plaintiff needs assistance, as it becomes too arduous to prove the liability of the Defendant in cases where no direct evidence is available. The doctrine, meaning, “the thing speaks for itself” permits an inference that the Defendant was negligent in peculiar and extraordinary circumstances which were under his exclusive control, even though no direct testimony is available for proving the same. Res Ipsa Loquitur is predominately based on the principle of “a reasonable man’s standard” where if the circumstances pointing towards the Defendant’s mistake are  obvious, then the negligence is also construed to be obvious. The Defendant has a duty to conform to a specific standard of conduct for the protection of others from the unreasonable risk or harm of causing an injury. Under the general principles of Tort Law, the Plaintiff is required to establish his case if he claims damages for the negligent acts of the Defendant. For claiming compensation, he has to prove that there was an existence of a duty on behalf of the Defendant and that duty has been breached, which has subsequently led to the damage to the Plaintiff. The Plaintiff, in furtherance to proving this, also has to prove that the breach of duty was the close and proximate cause of his injury. The continual evolution of this doctrine has made Res Ipsa a vehicle for proving strict liabilities in the modern era. The concept of ‘strict liability’ and that of ‘Res Ipsa Loquitur’ is similar on the grounds that both facilitate the Plaintiff to prove his case when the evidence for proving liability is beyond his reach.

For this doctrine to come into play, there are three generally accepted requirements which have to be taken into consideration. The first and foremost element is that the nature of the accident should be such that it would not have occurred under “ordinary circumstances” without the Defendant’s fault. The second essential is that the instrumentality causing the accident or damage to the Plaintiff must be under the exclusive control of the Defendant. And the third element is that a lucid inference from the facts of the case should be possible. It is quintessential that the inference drawn should be in coherence with the common judgment and experience and should be such that the Plaintiff’s damage would not have occurred without the involvement of the Defendant’s negligence. The prominent thing is that there should be some evidence connecting the inference of negligence with the Defendant, and the exclusive control technique is just one way of proving negligence, but the requirement itself is not an independent requirement.

The Courts of Law pay heavy reliance on the inference of such “ordinary circumstances” which draw attention towards the negligent acts of the Defendant. The word “ordinary” has been  subject to a lot of misinterpretations and is used in a very misleading way by the Plaintiff to obtain a favourable verdict, even in cases where the probable causes of the accident are incapable of being known. Res Ipsa has enormously expanded the role of judiciary. It is for the Judges to settle the point whether the circumstances support a conclusion that the damage would not ordinarily happened without the presence of negligence. They also have the authority and choice of deciding whether justice requires the Defendant to explain the occurrence. There is no fixed formula or prescribed guidelines and the judgment has to be passed keeping in mind the peculiar scenario of the case. Hence, no precedents can be set and each case has to be decided upon its own merits. This may involve a lot of opinionated, biased or misinterpreted judgments by the Courts.

Res Ipsa Loquitur is a matter of logic of proof whereby an intelligible inference is drawn from the circumstances of the case which hints of negligence. The proof will always be relative where it is sufficient to prove that the story of the case itself points towards the negligent conduct by the Defendant. Res Ipsa is not necessarily a rule of law, it simply elucidates a state of the evidence from which it is very much possible to deduce an intelligible inference of negligence and gives a cumbersome task to the Defendant to explain what had actually happened.

This doctrine helps, as an evidentiary rule, the Plaintiff to establish a prima facie case of negligence and places the Defendant in such a position where he has to rebut the presumption of negligence. This becomes very burdensome and increases the burden of disproving the negligence because the Plaintiff has not pinpointed a single specific act of negligence. The Plaintiff has proved his case with the aid of circumstantial evidences and it becomes very difficult for the Defendant to rebut the general presumption of negligence without knowing the actual cause of the accident. Hence, it becomes a coercive rule whereby Res Ipsa mandates the Defendant to counter the claim of the Plaintiff to shed off his own liability. In cases where he is unable to do so, he is out rightly held to be liable. It is too onerous or harsh for the Defendant as there is no direct evidence of how he behaved and what actually led to the damage or injury and hence unique problems of proof get attached to it.

There are also circumstances where the Defendant’s rebuttal for the presumption is that the accident was very rare and the probability of the happening on account of his negligence is minimal. But this is a very faulty reasoning because the mere fact that an accident is rare doesn’t elucidate on the question of which of the probable causes is more possible when an injury occurs. Res Ipsa should be applied in instances where permissible inference drawn from the circumstantial evidences makes sense and it should not be relied upon in doubtful cases. The Courts, very conveniently, apply Res Ipsa in cases even where there is a scope of further rebuttal or existence of stronger direct or circumstantial evidences, just to speed up the trial to deliver verdicts and do away with the pending cases. Also, this doctrine doesn’t really portray a clear picture as to how the doctrine has to be applied in cases of multiple defendants. Some Courts are of the opinion that all the Defendants should be treated as a single group and everyone should be held liable for the same. Others are of the viewpoint that the person who had the exclusive control over the happenings of the events is only to be held liable. This difference in opinion has to be sorted out and one general idea regarding the same should be developed by the Courts to ensure uniformity in the process of delivering justice. All this clearly shows how Res Ipsa Loquitur  is misused and poorly applied. Henceforth, the application and usage of Res Ipsa should be done with care and caution because invoking it has increased the incidences of malpractices.

Therefore, the doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur should be used carefully and in cases of urgency where it is used optimally to protect the interests of the Plaintiff and help him establish his case when it is too exhausting to find the particular act of negligence which caused the injury. But, the interests of the Defendant should not be ignored as the Courts should not be prejudiced about the situation and put him in such a position where he doesn’t have anything to prove. A mere silence on the matter or failure to rebut makes the Defendant liable because it is almost always impossible for him to provide an explanation as to what had exactly happened. So, a cautious use of the doctrine will do no harm and prevent the exploitation of one of the parties to the suit and not make Res Ipsa a coercive rule of evidence.

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