Hit by Falling Towel Dispenser – Res Ipsa Loquitur: “The Thing Speaks for Itself”

This was originally published on the SGR Blog.

Res ipsa loquitur is the Latin phrase describing a legal doctrine that infers negligence from the very nature of an accident or injury in the absence of any behavior or activity by the aggrieved person.

In most negligence cases, the plaintiff must establish a duty of care, breach of that duty, causation, and injury. But under res ipsa loquitur, the first three elements are inferred from an injury that does not ordinarily occur without negligence. 

In such cases, the injury is caused by an agency or instrumentality under the defendant’s exclusive control. Or the injury-causing accident is not caused by any voluntary act or contribution of the plaintiff.

Typical cases involve airplane accidents, elevator dropping down shafts, or collateral injury during routine surgery. But, as a factually idiosyncratic case demonstrates, the doctrine has been applied to the more mundane. 

Alberto Galue filed a personal injury action after his head was allegedly hit by a towel dispenser/trash receptacle unit installed by Spaccarelli Construction Co., Inc. The unit fell out of a bathroom wall in a building owned by Independent 270 Madison LLC and 270 Madison Ave Assocs LLC and operated by ABS Partners Real Estate LLC.

Charging the jury on the doctrine was dependent upon the proof adduced at trial.

The appeal’s court found that the trial court improvidently exercised its discretion in declining to charge the jury on res ipsa loquitur. A res ipsa charge merely permits the jury to infer negligence from the circumstances of the occurrence. The doctrine does not require sole physical access to the instrumentality, causing the injury.

The trial court should also have charged that a violation of the Administrative Code of the City of New York § 28-301.1, which requires property owners to maintain their buildings in a safe condition, constitutes some evidence of negligence.  

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