Falling Drywall Case Demonstrates the Concept of Res Ipsa Loquitur in Tort Actions

In a tort case based on negligence, a plaintiff must be able to show that the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff and that the defendant breached that duty, resulting in harm to the plaintiff. In some circumstances, though, it can be difficult for a plaintiff to obtain clear evidence of the defendant’s breach of duty.

The concept of “res ipsa loquitur,” which is Latin for “the thing speaks for itself,” can be employed in certain situations to establish the defendant’s breach of duty in the absence of direct evidence. Under this doctrine, the mere occurrence of an accident raises the inference of negligence on the part of the defendant. When res ipsa loquitur is applied, the defendant bears the burden to put on other evidence to dispute the presumption of negligence.

There are two essential elements for applying res ipsa loquitur in a particular situation:

1. the harmful event must be one that normally does not occur in the absence of negligence or careless action on the part of the defendant; and
2. the instrument that caused the injury must have been within the control of the defendant.

A plaintiff is not required to conclusively eliminate all other possible causes of his injury, but as the evidence supporting the two elements must afford the jury a rational basis for concluding that it was “more likely than not” that the injury was caused by the defendant’s careless conduct.

The landmark case for the application of res ipsa is Byrne v. Boadle from the British Court of Exchequer in 1863. In Byrne, the plaintiff was stuck and injured by a barrel of flour that fell from the window of the defendant’s warehouse. Ruling that the plaintiff was entitled to a presumption of negligence on the part of the defendant, the judge concluded that “a barrel could not roll out of a warehouse without some negligence, and to say that a plaintiff who is injured by it must call witnesses from the warehouse to prove negligence seems to me preposterous.”

Res ipsa loquitur, having been embraced by Louisiana law, was applied by the Court of Appeal in Copes v. Copeland Building Supply, 415 So.2d 264 (La. App. 2d, 1982). The Copes family contracted with Copeland for remodeling work on their home in Pioneer, Louisiana. Copeland delivered several bundles of drywall to the Copes residence, which were stacked in a hallway against a newly constructed wall. Sonia Copes, then age 11, while walking nearby noticed that one of the bundles had begun to fall; in her attempt to right the bundle, the rest of the wallboard fell against her, pinned her down, and broke both of the bones in her right forearm.

The Copes family brought suit against Copeland, arguing that the accident resulted from Copeland’s negligence in the unloading of the drywall. The trial judge found that the accident was caused by negligence in stacking the wallboard and rendered judgment against Copeland, who appealed.

The Louisiana Court of Appeal determined that res ipsa loquitur was properly applied to the situation based on the following factors:

1. The wallboard was under the control of Copeland, who had delivered it to the Copes’ home and stacked it in the hallway.
2. The falling of stacked wallboard is an accident which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence. The evidence of the circumstances surrounding the stacking of the wallboard was more readily accessible to Copeland than to the members of the Copes family because Copeland’s employees unloaded the truck. The occurrence of the accident created a presumption that Copeland’s employees who stacked the wallboard had done so negligently, and Copeland did not rebut the presumption of negligence created by these facts.

The Copes case is an example of a fairly straightforward application of the res ipsa loquitur doctrine, but not all situations are so clear.

If you have been injured due to someone’s negligence, call the Berniard Law Firm at 504-527-6225 or toll-free at 1-866-574-8005 and speak to an attorney who knows the law and can help you get the compensation you deserve.