This was originally published on the SGR Blog.
Were Owner/Managing Agent Liable For Injury?
“Res ipsa loquitur” is a legal principal that concludes that negligence occurred by the mere happening of an event. For example, an object falling from a building and injuring an innocent pedestrian. The elements of the concept are: the defendant was in exclusive control of the situation or instrument that caused the injury; the injury would not have ordinarily occurred but for the defendant’s negligence; and the plaintiff’s injury was not due to his/her own action or contribution. And, as a recent case illustrates, the doctrine applies to common and mundane accidents and injuries.
Entrice Valdez was injured when she was a resident of a halfway home in a building owned by Upper Creston, LLC, and maintained, managed, operated and controlled by Geo Reentry, Inc. and Cornell Companies, Inc. Valdez stepped on a drain cover on the floor. The drain cover then collapsed under her foot, causing her to twist her ankle and fall.
Valdez moved for summary judgment based on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, arguing that the evidence demonstrated Creston/Geo/Cornell’s unequivocal liability. Under that doctrine, an inference of negligence may be drawn solely from the happening of the accident upon the theory that certain occurrences contain within themselves a sufficient basis for an inference of negligence. Where a plaintiff’s prima facie proof is so convincing that the inference of negligence arising is inescapable and unrebutted, summary judgment on liability is proper.
Res ipsa loquitur applies when a plaintiff establishes: (1) the event is of the kind that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone’s negligence; (2) the event was caused by an agency or instrumentality within the exclusive control of the defendant; and (3) the accident was not due to any voluntary action or contribution on the part of the plaintiff.
The unrebutted record evidence demonstrated that the three elements of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur were satisfied. To begin, drain covers do not collapse under a person’s foot without someone’s negligence. Furthermore, it had been established that Geo and Cornell were in exclusive control of the room and its drain cover, and their suggestion that other residents using the bathroom would have removed their exclusive control was mere speculation. Valdez’ uncontradicted testimony demonstrated that the accident was not caused by any voluntary action or contribution on her part.
Where a plaintiff’s prima facie evidence is so convincing that the inference of negligence arising therefrom is inescapable and unrebutted, summary judgment on liability is proper. Here, Valdez’ testimony regarding the cause of the accident was uncontradicted; she twisted her ankle and fell when the drain cover collapsed after she stepped on it. Creston/Geo/Cornell did not present any evidence to suggest any other plausible explanation for the accident. Moreover, their claimed lack of notice was unavailing, as notice was inferred when the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applied.