Res ipsa loquitur

The principle of res ipsa loquitur when translated means 'the thing or the happening speaks for itself.'

The plea of 'res ipsa loquitur' is most likely to be encountered in the context of liability. For example, if a claimant brings an action in negligence, the burden of proof is on the claimant and this will mean that evidence needs to be established which may be difficult, time consuming and expensive.  In some cases it may be practically impossible.

In the event of an accident, which is caused by something within the defendant's control and which ordinarily, if managed properly, should not have happened, then 'res ipsa loquitur' if pleaded infers that the incident speaks for itself suggesting negligence.  If the plea is successfully raised the burden of prove will be reversed to the advantage of the claimant.

The leading case of Scott v London & St Katherine Docks (1865) lays down that there are three essential requirements for the plea to be allowed.  The conditions are:

  • the matter complained of must have been under the defendant's control;
  • there is no obvious alternative explanation for the incident;
  • the incident would not have happened if proper care had been taken over the matter.

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