Tennessee Supreme Court Denies Claim of Res Ipsa Loquitur Negligence

In most negligence cases, a plaintiff must show how a defendant breached a duty and how that breach caused his or her injuries. But in certain scenarios, a plaintiff may be certain that a defendant caused the injury but uncertain how the breach occurred or why it caused the injury it did. For instance, a plaintiff may own a shop that sells safes on the second floor of a building, when a safe falls out of the window of the store and onto a passerby. The passerby does not know how or why the safe fell but can be reasonably certain that it is something that should not have happened and is likely a result of the store owner’s negligence. This is the type of scenario in which the res ipsa loquitur doctrine can be applied. The res ipsa loquitur doctrine means “the thing speaks for itself” and applies when a plaintiff lacks direct proof of a defendant’s negligence but is entitled to an inference that the defendant was negligent. In a recent case before the Tennessee Supreme Court, the Court considered but rejected an argument based on res ipsa loquitur.

In this appellate case, E.J. contracted with several contractors to build his home. While the home was being constructed, it was demolished in a fire. E.J. was not at the home at the time and thus could not precisely prove who had caused the fire. However, E.J. alleged that the contractors had been at the home immediately prior to the fire and had excessive control of the home prior to the fire, and there was no credible evidence that anyone other than the contractors could have started the fire. Accordingly, he argued, he was entitled to an inference that the contractor’s negligence was the cause of his damages. In response, the contractors argued that there were multiple possible causes for the fire, including that it was Halloween when the fire occurred, there was no fence around the property and anyone could enter the property to start a fire, the fire could have been caused by electrical issues, discard cigarettes, or any other number of circumstances, and other contractors had been on the scene on the day of the fire.

At the lower court level, the court held that the res ipsa loquitur doctrine was not applicable because E.J. could not show that the house was under the exclusive control of the contractors or what the exact cause of the fire was. The Court of Appeals affirmed this finding, noting that E.J. had failed to show that other individuals were excluded or prohibited from the property, such that only the contractors could have caused the fire. In response to these two decisions, E.J. appealed.

On appeal, the Supreme Court closely considered the res ipsa loquitur doctrine, noting that it required a plaintiff to prove (1) the event that caused the injury is one that ordinarily does not happen without negligence, (2) other possible causes, including the conduct of third parties, had been eliminated, such that the defendant was in exclusive control, and (3) the negligence was within the scope of the defendant’s duty to the plaintiff. The Supreme Court commented that res ipsa loquitur had been applied to fire circumstances in other Tennessee cases, but in those circumstances, the defendant clearly had exclusive control over the premises at issue or the thing that caused the fire. Indeed, the Supreme Court noted that courts had previously rejected the doctrine when the defendant was not shown to have exclusive control. Here, the court concluded that the plaintiff could not show that the contractors were in exclusive control of the house at the time the fire occurred, or they had exclusive control over the instrumentality that caused the fire. The fire could have been caused by cigarettes, electrical wiring, arson, or a combustion of construction-related materials. Moreover, since the property was not fenced, any number of possible individuals could have been involved in creating the fire. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed that the res ipsa loquitur doctrine was inapplicable in these circumstances.

Relying on the res ipsa loquitur doctrine requires a very particular set of circumstances. While a plaintiff need not be sure of exactly how an injury occurred, he or she must be certain that the defendant was the party in exclusive control of the circumstances of the injury at the time it occurred. When many different circumstances or many different individuals could have caused an injury, res ipsa loquitur will not apply. Experienced Tennessee personal injury attorney Eric Beasley can help you consider whether the negligence you experienced can be proven through the evidence already available to you, or whether the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur may be an alternative option. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Court Finds No Negligence When School Could Not Foresee Student’s Sexual Assault, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, March 9, 2017.

Tennessee Courts Consider When a Party Can Be Held Liable for an Agent’s Negligence, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 12, 2016.

Sixth Circuit Denies Negligence Claim For Lack of Physical Injury, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, September 21, 2016.