Res Ipsa Loquitur means “things speak for themselves”. It seems to be a clear and straightforward maxim to grasp and apply prima facie. It is not, however, as plain as it seems to be. Among law students, there is a common thought, “Res ipsa loquitur, sed quid in infernos dicetne?”, which translates into “The thing speaks for itself,… Read More »

Res Ipsa Loquitur means “things speak for themselves”. It seems to be a clear and straightforward maxim to grasp and apply prima facie. It is not, however, as plain as it seems to be. Among law students, there is a common thought, “Res ipsa loquitur, sed quid in infernos dicetne?”, which translates into “The thing speaks for itself, but what does it say?” In this article, Vatsala Sood examines the doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur in the context of Tort Law....

Res Ipsa Loquitur means “things speak for themselves”. It seems to be a clear and straightforward maxim to grasp and apply prima facie. It is not, however, as plain as it seems to be. Among law students, there is a common thought, “Res ipsa loquitur, sed quid in infernos dicetne?”, which translates into “The thing speaks for itself, but what does it say?” In this article, Vatsala Sood examines the doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur in the context of Tort Law.

I. Introduction

Res ipsa loquitur is a principle which shifts the burden of proof on the defendant by applying it. Generally, it is the complainant who needs to offer evidence to support the guilt of the defendant in a lawsuit. There is however a shift while this principle is used. The burden of proof shifts to the defendant. On the part of the defendant, there is a presumption of guilt and it is up to him to show his non-liability and that it was not his actions that caused the injuries of the complainant.

Accidents happen all the time, and several times, it’s because of the negligence of others. Under the law of tort, the duty of proof is on the appellant, that is, anyone that is the object of the tort, in order to prove someone’s negligence.

Proving that the perpetrator was at fault and even collecting facts against his act or negligence becomes very complicated. The maxim of Res Ipsa Loquitor then entered into effect, keeping this in mind, under which a complainant can use circumstantial evidence to prove negligence[1].

Res ipsa loquitur is one of the most commonly expressed maxims emerging in tort cases. The true purpose and effect of its implementation, however, are unclear, despite its frequent use. This ambiguity is the product of the courts’ propensity to extend the doctrine outside its original meaning and to interpret the term as a nostrum capable of addressing a variety of evidence issues[2].

The maxim has been described in numerous ways. “The thing speaks for itself” is simply translated. It is a “phrase often used in actions for injury by negligence where no proof of negligence is required beyond the incident itself which is such as necessarily to involve negligence.”[3]

II. Development of the Principle

The phrase res ipsa loquitur was first applied to a case where usury was visible on the face of a sued instrument. In 1863, in its current use in Byrne v. Boadle, the word was first used where the complainant was wounded by a barrel that dropped from the window of the defendant. In that case, Pollock, C. B., said:

“There are many incidents from which no presumption of negligence can arise, but this is not true in every case. It is the duty of persons who keep barrels in a warehouse to take care that they do not roll out and I think that such a case will, beyond all doubt, afford prima facie proof of negligence.”

The present case on the facts comes like this- a man passes in front of a flour dealer’s premises, and a barrel of flour rolls down upon him. It is clear that the barrel was in the possession of the defendant who owned the property and who is liable for the conduct of his servants who managed it and, the fact that it dropped is prima facie evidence of neglect and the complainant who harmed it is not bound to show that it did not fall without negligence, nor whether there are any contradictory details[4].

The above judgment was accompanied by others in which the term was used in the same way, and still, in numerous related cases, most jurisdictions use the maxim.[5]

III. Critical Analysis

In the law of torts, it is foundational that the responsibility of proving negligence rests on him who alleges it. It is consistently stated that negligence will never be presumed[6]. Even if there is a presumption of aiding the plaintiff, by a preponderance of the facts, he must still show that the defendant has been negligent. [7]

However, some courts consider the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur to symbolise the concept of evidence that removes such cases from this general rule. Courts[8] that dispute that this amounts to an exception[9], consider a res ipsa case as merely representing a circumstance where the fact and essence of the accident itself “speaks”, that is, offers evidence of negligence[10], in order to relieve the plaintiff of the initial obligation to prove negligence, or rather, perhaps to discharge that duty on his part.[11]

IV. This is the Practical Question that Arises: How can One Show Negligence?

The principle of res ipsa loquitur also comes to the plaintiff’s benefit here. And there are many examples of the importance of this doctrine in Supreme Court decisions.[12] For instance, where a canal was under the administration of the state of Punjab and a breach occurred in the canal due to its negligence, flooding the lands of the complainant (a grower), it was established that res ipsa loquitur was used and the breach itself was prima facie evidence of negligence.[13]

In Res Ipsa Loquitur, however, the burden of proof transfers to the defendant. Res Ipsa Loquitur is not a theory, but rather an inferential reasoning mode for accidents of uncertain origin. The mode of inferential logic of Res Ipsa Loquitur falls into play where an event of unexplained cause is one that does not usually occur without the defendant’s negligence in controlling the item or action that harmed the claimant or destroyed his goods. The court will presume negligence on the part of the defendant in such a case unless it includes an appropriate explanation compatible with his taking reasonable care.[14].

If the source of injury is identified, the doctrine doesn’t apply. It may be said, however, that some component of the causal process is established, but what is missing is its interaction or association with the defendant. If the source of the damage is the truth of control, it must be seen that the thing under his control has caused the damage.

Therefore, in a nutshell, the source of the damage must be identified before the rule can be extended in the case of ordinary negligence, for ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat, the onus of demonstrating negligence rests on the party claiming it. (The duty of proof rests on the individual who asserts, not the person who denies). And to establish a claim to be left to the jury, by adducing fair proof of it, he must show the negligence claimed forthrightly.

V. The Essentials of Res Ipsa Loquitor

  • Inference of Negligence

In any case, for the Res Ipsa Loquitor aspect to be made applicable, the incident should be such that it could not have occurred if, without fault, the usual course of things had happened. A barrel of flour, for example, will not crash on someone’s head randomly if the group is fairly vigilant.

And indeed, in the centre of the city, a Clock Tower would take special caution and if it falls and causes damage to many victims, the defendants will be held responsible for the same under this theory, but apparently. In such cases, it is not necessary to provide clear proof of negligence, but the claimant must create a prima facie argument, either by direct or circumstantial evidence of negligence and dereliction of duty by the defendant.

  • Exclusive control by the defendant

The element that caused the harm must be directly under the influence of the criminal or his agent. It is not necessarily important if all the situations be under the influence of the defendant, because if the circumstances contributing to the injuries were under the control of someone except the defendant, then inadequate proof against the defendant is the simple occurrence of the accident.

For instance, if a surgeon left a mop within the abdomen of the patient at the time of the procedure, the doctor had sole power over the wellbeing of the patient here, so he will be accountable under the Res Ipsa Loquitor law[15].

  • Freedom from Contributory Negligence

The third premise, which is important, is that the claimant or some third party has not caused or contributed to the injury sustained by him. Where it is known that the claimant or a third party contributed to the act that caused the claimant harm, the theory shall not be applicable[16].

Once these aspects have been identified, there is a likelihood that the courts can treat it as a potential suspicion of the defendant’s negligence. Usually, after this, the jury in question presumes that the criminal is guilty. The jury is not obliged to conclude those things, however. The burden of evidence in such cases is on the complainant that he was not reckless. This theory is also refutable because if the defendant will effectively counter the negligence claim, he can win the lawsuit. Otherwise, he would be left accountable for the[17].

VI. Understanding the Doctrine through Landmark Indian Precedents

In A.S. Mittal and Anr v. State of U.P. and Ors., The defendants, along with the Lions Club, conducted an eye camp in Khurja. During the camp time, 88 low-risk cataract operations were performed. However, when all of those who had been operated upon lost their eyesight due to post-surgical care, it was catastrophic.

Proceedings were launched against the government for incompetence on the part of the physicians. Damages worth Rs 12500 were paid to each of the aggrieved as temporary relief. On the grounds of Res Ipsa Loquitur, the decision was made because the incident would not have happened if the doctors had not been reckless in failing to follow through with post-operative care.

Res Ipsa Loquitur will also be found in situations where all the protocols have not been met and where it is not restricted to the commission of an act[18].

In the case of State of Punjab v. Modern Cultivators, LadwaModern Cultivators, the claimant, suffered damages as a result of a break in a canal belonging to the State of Punjab leading to flooding of its land. The Trial Court paid damages and ordered the suit upheld by the First Circuit Court and by the Hon’ble High Court in the Second Appeal. However, a set of damages were limited by the High Court. The Hon’ble Supreme Court addressed both sides. The Hon’ble Supreme Court ruled that by applying the Res Ipsa Loquitor rule, the defendant was liable. [19].

In Rampeary and Another v. Jai Prakash and Another [20], The plaintiff was a minor girl approximately nine years old who along with her mum, was passing by the road on her left side. The defendant was in the middle of the lane, playing. Sitting on the rod of the cycle was another claimant. The rider unexpectedly turned his bike on his wrong side (to his right) and collided with the minor, causing her to sustain compound fractures and some bleeding trauma in two of her bones in the right knee.

The minor’s pleadings were that due to wrongdoing on the part of the cyclist and defendant No.2, she sustained an injury and they are eligible for compensation. The claims were rejected by all the defendants. The entire evidence was discussed by the Trial Court and the suit for the sum of Rs.567/- was decreed. Yeah. The Ld. The Ld. decision was set down by the First Appeals Court. Trial Court and dismissed the action by claiming that the complainant did not provide satisfactory evidence of negligence that could be claimed to be a near source of accident and injuries to her.

Nevertheless the Ld. The First Appeal Court granted her Rs.300/- for her medical expenses. The injured/plaintiff moved the High Court of Hon’ble Patna. The Second Appeal Court (Hon’ble Patna High Court) set aside the judgement of Ld. The First Circuit Court ordered a new ruling and remitted the lawsuit.

In Bennett v. Chemical Construction (GB) Ltd, when a panel, situated behind a panel that was pushed by the workmen of the defendant, collapsed, the complainant was wounded. There were several claims that the two panels had been joined together but the judge ruled that it was not necessary to decide exactly how the accident occurred, but that it should not have occurred on the part of the defendant’s workmen without negligence. In the pleadings or the verdict, the words “Res Ipsa Loquitur” did not appear. On appeal, it was held that the case was a textbook example of Res Ipsa Loquitur, and was sufficiently protected by the charges of incompetence in the pleadings.[21].

Therefore, awareness of the mode in which Res Ipsa Loquitur does not need to be extended to the injury. It is the presence of the injury that is relevant.

More prevalently recognized as the Oleum gas leak case [22], this is a Public Interest Litigation surrounding the establishment, in the wake of the Oleum gas spill, of businesses engaged in dangerous works in thickly populated areas. The Oleum gas leak occurred in Shriram Mills’ workplace. Oleum is a toxic substance, and many individuals have been killed by this aspect of the gas, causing significant injuries to the wellbeing of those who are trapped nearby.

The negligence of the mill owners could not be proven and Res Ipsa Loquitur was adopted to transfer the duty of evidence to the mill owners to prove that they were not negligent. It was argued in the PIL that any industry engaged in injury/damage cases related to the dangerous practises it undertakes would then be prima facie liable for establishing that they were not reckless.

The maxim was used in this situation to establish negligence and they were held responsible for the harm and injuries suffered. It was further concluded that any organisation engaging in risky practises would be held prima facie responsible and it is up to them to give facts to show that they are not negligent in failing to be held accountable.

In Achutrao Haribhau Khodwa and Others v. State of Maharashtra and Others, the deceased was referred to a government hospital for a sterilisation procedure by the appellant’s relative. However, during the process, a mop was left inside the body of the victim, resulting in the development of pus and eventual death. In order to strike down the High Court order and pay damages worth Rs 1,75,000, the appellant brought an action to the Supreme Court.

The appellant did not claim the fault of the doctors and Res Ipsa Loquitur’s doctrine was then extended to keep the defendants liable as the court found that it was a reckless act of the defendants to abandon the towel that induced the death and that this act was well under the influence of the defendants.

While it is normal that certain foreign bodies are normally left behind after an operation in the body of a patient, deliberately or accidentally, and that the body usually battles the foreign bodies, it was noted that it was an incredibly negligent act to leave a mop. The High Court order was cast aside[23].

Therefore for cases of neglect of general incidence, Res Ipsa Loquitur should not be imposed, but when the same negligence is of a very high degree causing significant injury, the maxim can be attributed.

VII. Conclusion

Res Ipsa Loquitor is a legal concept that means “the thing speaks for itself”. In the law of wrongdoing, it is a very common doctrine; it is circumstantial or secondary proof that infers fault from the very existence of the accident that has happened and there is a shortage of clear evidence against the offender. Res Ipsa Loquitor is enforced because it can be said that the crash would not have occurred without the defendant is liable.

In the modern period, Res Ipsa Loquitur seeks growing applicability. It is utilised in cases such as the use of the maxim in the M.C. Mehta v. Union of India, usually referred to as the oleum gas leak case, and typically in all cases where the public’s rights are abused and aggrieved, and fault cannot be defined by them. So the onus is transferred to the defendants not to show negligence.[24]

It is primarily applicable in all prima facie cases, where the fault on the part of the complainant is apparent at first instance and without which the damage would not have happened. It is assumed that the defendant is negligent in such a situation and it is up to him to explain why he is not negligent.

It is a sign of the law that the existence of an accident in the circumstances can allow an inference or pose a suspicion of negligence, or render a prima facie case of a claimant and raise a question of evidence for the defendant to provide with an answer.

That is just a quick way of stating that the facts involved with the crash are of such a sort that a judge is reasonable in the light of common sense and previous practise in inferring that the accident was likely the result of the fault of the defendant, in the absence of any justification or other proof that the judge claims.


[1] The Doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur by Charles E. Carpenter, Professor of Law, University Of Southern California.

[2] Clark v. Lang (1919) 124 Va. 554, 98 S. E. 673; Klein v. Beeten (1919) 169 Wis. 385, 172 N. W. 736

[3] Bouvier, Law Dictionary (8th Ed. 1914) 2908; Prossrr, Torts (1941) §43

[4] P.M. Bakshi, Law of Torts, 17th Edition.

[5] Byrne v. Boadle, 159 Eng. Rep. 299 (1863), Available Here

[6] Clark v. Lang (1919) 124 Va. 554, 98 S. E. 673; Klein v. Beeten (1919) 169 Wis. 385, 172 N. W. 736

[7] Memphis St. Ry. Co. v. Cavell (1916) 135 Tenn.

[8] Southern R. R. Co. v. Derr (1917) 240 Fed. 73, 153 C. C. A. 109

[9] Tower v. Humboldt Transit Co. (1917) 176 Calif. 602, 169 Pac. 227

[10] McCombe v. Public Service Ry. Co. (1920) 95

[11] Mulligan v. Atlantic Coast Line R. R. Co. (1916) 104 S. C. 173, 88 N

[12] Basthi Kasim Saheb v Mysore SRT. Corporation AIR 1991 SC 487.

[13] State of Punjab v Modern Cultivators, (1964) 2 SCJ 796.

[14] Hayes v. Peters, 645 S.E.2d 846 (N.C. Ct. App. 2007).

[15] 57B Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 1164; See also Cooper v. Public Belt R.R., 776 So. 2d 639 (La. Ct. App. 4th Cir. 2000).

[16] 7B Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 1350.

[17] 57B Am. Jur. 2d Negligence § 1172.

[18] A.S. Mittal and Anr v. State of U.P. and Ors , (AIR) 1989 SC 1570.

[19]State of Punjab v. Modern Cultivators, 1965 AIR 17, 1964 SCR (8) 273.

[20] Rampeary and Another v. Jai Prakash and Another, (2 Camp. 79).

[21] Bennett v. Chemical Construction (GB) Ltd, (1971) 3 All ER 822.

[22] M.C Metha v. Union of India, (AIR) 1987 SC 965.

[23] Achutrao Haribhau Khodwa and Others v. State of Maharashtra and Others, (AIR) 1996 SC 2377.

[24] Supra^21.

Law of Torts; Notes, Case Laws And Study Material

Updated On 2 Dec 2020 12:51 AM GMT
Vatsala Sood

Vatsala Sood

Student at Symbiosis Law School, Pune

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