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 Res Ipsa Loquitur Redux

The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, the darling of first year law students studying torts, provides that negligence may be “inferred” in certain circumstances where an injury occurs in an unexplained way under circumstances wherein the injury could not have occurred absent the negligence of the defendant.   Res ipsa loquitur rarely survives to trial because it is only in the rarest of circumstances that the exacting criteria of the doctrine can be met, thereby relieving a substantial portion of a plaintiff’s burden of proof.

Then the Washington Supreme Court decided Curtis v. Lein, 169 Wn. 2d 884 (2010). The high court reversed the court of appeals and the trial court in a dock collapse case, applying res ipsa loquitur in a premises liability case. The Court soundly rejected several previously bulletproof arguments dispensing with res ipsa claims. The property owners, the Leins, argued (and the lower courts firmly agreed) that there are lots of reasons why a dock can collapse that have nothing to do with the negligence of the landowner, such as faulty construction; or a boat collision; or rot; or vandalism, etc. The Court held instead that res ipsa should create a general inference of negligence (including breach of duty and causation) that cannot be “parsed” into the component parts of a negligence claim. After all, the defendant is still free to rebut the inference.

This is not a recommendation to adopt res ipsa as the central theme of a negligence claim.  I suspect that Curtis is a one-time shot.  But the case is precedent, and it may just get the difficult tort case past summary judgment.