Thursday, October 8, 2009

Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit interprets Illinois law related to Res Ipsa Loquitur

Earlier today I posted a quote from a new case out of the Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit on the importance of preserving evidence and making sure the judges have a clear picture of the facts, so to speak (here). At the bottom of that note, I mentioned that the case was about the possible application of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. Here is a comment about that part of the case.

 In the case, to support its argument that the defendant breached its duty of care, the plaintiff tried to rely on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which allows a plaintiff to prove negligence by showing that even if there is no direct evidence of negligence, the circumstances of the accident indicate that it probably would not have occurred had the defendant not been negligent. The Court then proceeds to interpret Illinois law on the subject as it relates to two very important aspects of res ipsa loquitur: the so-called "requirement" that the instrumentality that causes the injury be under "exclusive control" of the defendant and the procedural effect that the application of the doctrine should have.

As to the issue of "control", the court adopts what has been the modern trend: to minimize the importance of this factor -- or to eliminate it entirely -- from the analysis. The notion that the object that causes an injury has to be under the exclusive control of the defendant can't be read strictly because doing so would limit the application of the doctrine too much. Courts have never required a strict application of this factor. At most, it can be said that the control must refer to control at the time of the possible negligence (not at the time of the accident -- which is the interpretation the defendants always argue since usually it is the plaintiff who is using the product when the accident happens).

Coming just short of saying the question of control is irrelevant, the court states the following: "The black-letter statement of the doctrine is that the thing that caused the plaintiff’s injury must at the time of the accident have been under the defendant’s control. But as the Prosser treatise points out. . . this formulation (like so many blackletter statements of rules) should not be taken literally, as it implies that the doctrine could not be invoked in a case in which the brakes on a new car fail and the manufacturer is sued. . . ." It should be noted that the Restatement 3d of Torts eliminated the element of control from its "blackletter" description of the doctrine. 

As to the question of the effect of the application of the doctrine in Illinois, the court had this to say: "The parties manage to avoid telling us what the effect of the doctrine is in a lawsuit governed by Illinois law. Does the doctrine merely allow the trier of fact to infer negligence—is it in other words just an illustration of the use of circumstantial evidence to create a prima facie case? Or does it create a presumption of negligence that entitles the plaintiff to judgment unless the defendant presents evidence in rebuttal, or that even shifts the burden of persuasion to the defendant? In Illinois, as in most states, . . . it is just a type of circumstantial evidence (which raises the question, why treat it as a separate doctrine?)."

 Note the little challenge thrown in there by the judge... can we really explain why we treat RIL as a "separate doctrine" if all it is is a form or circumstantial evidence with a fancy name? The case is Aguirre v. Turner Construction Company.

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