In New York, a res ipsa loquitur charge is warranted only where a plaintiff establishes that: (1) the type of accident at issue ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence; (2) the instrumentality causing the accident was in the defendant’s exclusive control; and (3) the accident was not due to any voluntary action or contribution by the plaintiff.
Although it is difficult to prove “exclusive control”, this element has been liberally construed by the courts. In fact, the doctrine may still apply even where other parties have access to the instrument.
In Hutchings v Yuter, the plaintiff was injured when a garage door suddenly fell and struck him on the head. The defendant owned the property and maintained a home office in the basement. The First Department found that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applied because it was the type of event that does not normally occur in the absence of negligence. Although the defendants claimed others could have had access to the garage door, the Appellate Division found that the plaintiff demonstrated “sufficient” exclusivity of control.
Accordingly, res ipsa loquitur does not require sole physical access to the instrumentality causing the injury. The doctrine can be applied in situations where more than one defendant could have exercised exclusive control of an instrument. The courts have yet to set forth a clear standard defining “exclusive control.” As Hutchings demonstrates, “exclusivity” maybe inferred simply from a party’s ownership of the instrument.
Thanks to Bill Kirrane for his contribution to this post. If you have any questions, please email Paul Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org