Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland reiterates the limited application of the doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitor

The Court of Special Appeals holding reiterates that scooters and moving cars do not mix for the purposes of res ipsa loquitur.

Cohen v. Veolia Transp. Servs., Inc., No. 0199 (Md. App. Feb. 29, 2016).

Ordinarily, the fact that an accident occurred does not mean that it was caused by negligence.  The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, however, permits a factfinder to conclude the existence of negligence though the simple occurrence of an injury and the circumstances surrounding it.  The Court of Special Appeals recently addressed this infrequently utilized doctrine in a case involving a Plaintiff that was seated in a motorized scooter, while being transported in a mobility van.  The scooter had been initially strapped to the van by the driver, and the scooter then tipped over, causing injury to the Plaintiff.  The Defendant was the transportation service hired to transport Plaintiff and her son in the mobility van.

Plaintiff sued Defendant for negligently securing the scooter straps. Due to the lack of direct evidence at trial, Plaintiff sought to apply the doctrine res ipsa loquitur to establish her claim.  Despite testifying that they both saw the driver secure straps from the van to the scooter, neither Plaintiff nor Plaintiff’s son knew how the driver actually handled the straps.  Notably, Plaintiff also testified that the scooter manual contained a warning that sitting on the scooter while in a moving vehicle was dangerous.  At the close of Plaintiff’s case, Defendant moved for judgment, arguing that res ipsa loquitur could not be applied, and, therefore, there was no evidence of a breach of duty, and the trial court agreed.  After granting Defendant’s motion for judgment, Plaintiff appealed, and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling in the instant unreported opinion.

The Court of Special Appeals reiterated the long-standing doctrine of res ipsa loquitur: a plaintiff must establish: (1) an accident that would not ordinarily happen without negligence; (2) that said accident was caused by an event that was within the defendant’s exclusive control; and (3) no action by anyone else, including the plaintiff, was a cause of the event.

Addressing the first element, the Court of Special Appeals found that nothing in the record demonstrating that a motorized scooter would not tip over absent negligence.  Regarding the second element, the Court found that, because other individuals could have damaged the straps in the van, there was no exclusive control.  The Court also found the third element lacking, observing that the scooter’s manual—as acknowledged by the Plaintiff—stated that it was dangerous to ride the scooter in a moving vehicle; thus, the Court found that Plaintiff may have also contributed to tipping her scooter.

The doctrine of res ipsa loquitor is rarely used in cases involving auto accidents, and if it is, the situation is typically unusual, as in Cohen.  The factors contributing to a collision between two moving vehicle are so numerous that it is almost impossible to show that a defendant had exclusive control over these factors, thereby producing the accident.  This being the case, Maryland courts will not apply res ipsa loquitor to cases where an auto accident has more than one case or where there is no evidence of a specific cause of the accident.  Cohen reminds us that res ipsa loquitor is rarely a substitute for direct evidence of a breach of duty.  It is doctrine applicable only where an injury cannot be explained absent some negligence on defendant’s part.