Case Law Update: Georgia Court of Appeals Holds that Application of Res Ipsa Loquitur Should Only Be Used in Rare Cases

The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur requires that a plaintiff show that whatever caused the plaintiff’s injury was in the exclusive control of the defendant and but for the defendant’s negligence, the plaintiff would not have been injured. Clearly, it is one of the hardest tests in tort law to meet because generally there is some external cause or intermediate cause that could have led to the plaintiff’s injury. The doctrine is explained another way here: “Res ipsa loquitur is a rule of evidence that permits an inference of negligence to arise from the happening of an event causing an injury; however, it is only applicable where it is shown that the defendant owns, operates, and maintains, or controls and is responsible for the management and maintenance of, the thing doing the damage and that the accident is a kind that, in the absence of proof of some external cause, does not ordinarily happen without negligence.” 15 Ga. Jur. Personal Injury and Torts § 28:108.

Recently, in Law v. BioLab Inc.,Georgia Court of Appeals, Civil Case (12/27/2013, 1/7/2014) A13A1877, The plaintiff failed to prove that the defendant company’s negligence caused a fire at its chemical storage facility or that the fire caused his alleged injury. The Plaintiff alleged he was injured when he inhaled fumes from a fire at a chemical storage facility claiming the company admitted its negligence when the company vice president stated in a newspaper article he was sorry for the “disruption we’ve caused.” However the Court of Appeals found no evidence that BioLab caused the fire and that even if a newspaper article quoting a BioLab vice president’s apology for “the disruption” could have been construed as an admission of liability, Law failed to identify any evidence that the subject matter of the statement related to what the vice president knew by virtue of his job duties. The Court also found that res ipsa loquitur did not apply, as Law did not show any rational basis for concluding that the fire would not have occurred in the absence of any negligence and his alleged injury could have been produced by an intermediary cause. Indeed, the fire could have been caused by arson, an act of God, or other cause without any negligent act or omission on the part of anyone. Furthermore, Law’s alleged injury, that is, his pulmonary problems, could have been produced by an intermediary cause, such as his twenty-year history of smoking one pack of cigarettes per day. Because there is no evidence from which a jury could infer that BioLab was negligent as alleged, the trial court did not err in granting BioLab’s motion for summary judgment.

The Court noted that “[R]es ipsa loquitur should be applied with caution and only in extreme cases[.]” Hosp. Auth. of the City of St. Marys v. Eason, 222 Ga. 536, 541 (1) (150 SE2d 812) (1966). See also Watts & Colwell Builders v. Martin, 313 Ga. App. 1, 6 (2) (720 SE2d 329) (2011) (accord). Furthermore, the doctrine “does not apply when there is an intermediary cause which could have produced the injury.”

Molly O’Connor