Monday, October 16, 2017

Res ipsa loquitur wins plaintiff her negligence case

One of the great concepts of American tort law is res ipsa loquitur, which is Latin for "the thing speaks for itself." This point is that certain negligent acts are the result of inherent negligence, such that the very fact that a piano fell out of a 82nd floor window, or 80 jars of olive oil splattered in aisle 7 could only mean one thing, and that these unusual circumstances mean the defendant blew it and plaintiff can satisfy his prima facie case (which normally requires evidence that someone breached a duty, causing harm).

The case is Manhattan by Sail, Inc. v. Tagle, decided on October 5. Plaintiff took a ride on a sightseeing boat in New York Harbor. When the crew raises the forestaysail, they have to pull downward on a halyard and the forestaysail goes upward toward a pulley near the top of the mast. But something went wrong that day. When crewman Biggens went to do this, the halyard got unclipped, and "tugged by gravitational force toward the mast, the freed halyard pulled loose from Biggen's grip and swung back towards the mast where Tagle was seated. The clip at the end of the Halyard swung back towards the mast" and struck Tagle in the head. At trial, Biggens could not explain why this had happened. The trial court dismissed Tagle's case because she did not prove negligence.

The Court of Appeals (Leval, Sack and Raggi) reverses. Not only do they reinstate the lawsuit, but the judges order that the trial enter judgment for plaintiff as a matter of law! Here is the standard for res ipsa loquitur:

Under that doctrine, a fact‐finder may infer negligence merely from the happening of the event that caused the harm if: (1) the event is of a type that ordinarily would not occur in the absence of  negligence; (2) it is caused by an agency or instrumentality under the exclusive control of the party charged with negligence; and (3) it is not due to any voluntary action or contribution on the part of injured party. 
The Court says that res ipsa loquitur is not limited to accidents that could occur only because of negligence. Rather, the plaintiff must show the event is the kind that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence. In this case, plaintiff showed that what had happened to her would ordinarily not happen without negligence. The defendant did not rebut her evidence. "While no doubt things can happen at sea that could cause an extended halyard to slip out of a seaman’s grasp without negligence, Tagle’s evidence was sufficient to show that this does not ordinarily happen without negligence." Simply put, if the workers did their job properly, this accident would not have happened. While you can blame it on the wind or some other external factor, there was no evidence of any such external force. The Court reasons:

A deckhand who carefully exercises the skills required for the seaman’s job will not ordinarily lose hold of an extended weighted halyard—all the more so when passengers are seated in the halyard’s swing‐path. Waves and wind, and the consequent shifting and rolling of the deck, are the normal conditions of the sea, in which seamen must work protecting the safety of passengers and crew. While it is no doubt true that sudden unexpected turbulence can be of such force that a seamen’s loss of control of a line could be deemed non‐negligent, there was no evidence in the record of any such abnormal circumstance that caused the halyard to slip from Biggins’s grasp. As Johnson made clear, the mere possibility that “some external force”—here, perhaps an unusual wave or gust—“might conceivably compel” a seamen to let go of a dangerous halyard is not sufficient reason to reject the application of res ipsa loquitur if this would ordinarily not happen in the absence of negligence, and there was no evidence of any such unusual external force.
Even without res ispa loqutur, plaintiff still wins, as she has established negligence without that theory. The Court says there is no other way to view the evidence, which means plaintiff wins the case.

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