In Florida, like many other states, the legal doctrine known as res ipsa loquitur exists as a claim that can be brought against defendants in civil tort related cases. Typically, the claim is advanced when a party argues that the court can infer negligence from the accident or injury that occurred even in the absence of direct evidence. In other words, res ipsa loquitur is typically brought when the nature of how an accident or injury came about is so obviously negligent that the court does not require additional direct evidence on how a defendant behaved to assign liability.
In a recent Florida district court of appeal opinion, the court considered whether the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applied to a personal injury case. An attorney brought a premises liability case on behalf of his client, who was being held at a local county jail when she was injured by an interior gate that closed on her unexpectedly. At trial, the defendant argued that the officer who controlled the gate and the jail did not act negligently, but instead a sensor was tripped, or there was a malfunction, which caused the accident. However, the attorney presented testimony from jail staff explaining that the jail gates operated manually and were controlled by an officer, but did not present evidence explaining whether a malfunction could cause the gate to close unexpectedly. The jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff with a res ipsa loquitur instruction, and the defendant appealed.
On appeal, the court sided with the defendant and reversed and remanded the case for further consideration. Because the plaintiff failed to prove that negligence by the defendant was the probable cause of her injuries, the court could not apply res ipsa loquitur to the present case. Although the plaintiff offered some evidence on how the gate was intended to operate, the lack of expert testimony on how the gate actually worked at the time of the incident or whether a malfunction could have caused an accident absent negligence meant that the plaintiff failed to meet the burden of proof necessary for the court to apply res ipsa loquitur.