• Doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitor Saves Plaintiff’s Case from Dismissal
  • February 19, 2015 | Author: Betsy G. Ramos
  • Law Firm: Capehart & Scatchard, P.A. - Mount Laurel Office
  • Plaintiff, Wendy Lazarus, was injured as she tried to enter the elevator at the PATH station. In Lazarus v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, 2014 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2970 (App. Div. Dec. 29, 2014), the plaintiff sued the Port Authority for her injuries. Initially, her case was dismissed by the trial judge because she did not have an expert witness to testify as to how the Port Authority was negligent. However, she appealed, claiming that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor applied and she did not need an expert to pursue her claim.

    The plaintiff had been on her way to work when she entered the elevator at the PATH station. After the elevator doors opened, she put her leg into the elevator and, suddenly, it rose 3 to 4 inches above the platform level, causing her to fall forward onto her hands and knees. She later learned that she had fractured her patella.

    The defendant’s records showed that prior to the accident, the elevator had recurring problems. Repair technicians had been there 2 times the month before her accident and that just 12 hours prior to her accident, technicians had been called to troubleshoot the controller and valve. The elevator had just been returned to service less than an hour before the plaintiff entered it.

    After discovery ended, the defendant successfully moved for summary judgment, dismissing the case. It contended that without an expert to establish negligence, “the common knowledge of lay jurors is incapable of assessing negligence” as to the defendant. The trial judge rejected the application of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor (which means “the thing speaks for itself”), reasoning that the mechanics of how an elevator works was a complex issue that jurors could not understand without the assistance of expert testimony.

    The plaintiff appealed that decision to the Appellate Division, claiming that she should have been entitled to proceed under this doctrine. The Appellate Division agreed and reversed the trial court’s ruling.

    The court explained that this doctrine arose from public policy concerns to allow a blameless injured plaintiff to obtain an inference of negligence where certain required factors are met. This doctrine allows a permissive inference, that a jury can accept or reject, that “if due care had been exercised by the person having control of the instrumentality causing the injury, the mishap would not have occurred.”

    Res ipsa loquitor would permit this inference of defendant’s negligence if the following is established: (1) the occurrence itself ordinarily bespeaks negligence: (2) the instrumentality was within defendant’s exclusive control; and (3) there is no indication in the circumstances that the injury was the result of plaintiff’s voluntary act or neglect.

    The Appellate Division pointed out that res ipsa loquitor has consistently been recognized in cases involving malfunctioning complex instrumentalities such as escalators, elevators, and automatic sliding doors. After reviewing the facts, the appeals court found that the plaintiff did meet the test for the application of this doctrine.

    The Appellate Division stated that common knowledge suggests that elevators do not usually operate in the manner reported by the plaintiff and that such accident does not normally occur absent negligence. Further, there was no evidence that the plaintiff was at fault.

    The court’s conclusion was further supported by the prior complaints as to this elevator. Although this case involved a complex instrumentality, technical knowledge is not essential for jury to understand what happened and to determine if the defendant was negligent. Hence, the Appellate Division held that the plaintiff may proceed with her case without expert testimony.