The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur can be employed by a plaintiff to establish the defendant’s breach of duty in the absence of direct evidence of the defendant’s negligent conduct. However, use of the doctrine “does not relieve the plaintiff of the ultimate burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence all of the elements necessary for recovery.” To prevail in a negligence claim based on the “ruin, vice, or defect in things,” the plaintiff must show that the defendant knew or should have known of the defect and that the harm to the plaintiff could have been prevented by the defendant’s reasonable care. See Cangelosi v. Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center.
As the plaintiff in Shuff v. Brookshire Grocery Co. learned, the doctrine cannot be invoked to circumvent this fundamental burden.
On October 15, 2006, Ashley Shuff entered the Super One Foods grocery store in Bastrop with her two children. Upon arrival, Shuff placed her 20-month-old daughter, Cloe, into the child seat that was built into one of the store’s shopping carts and fastened the seat belt. Shuff admitted that the belt mechanism appeared to be working properly when she buckled Cloe in. A short while later, Cloe fell from the seat to the store’s concrete floor and broke her arm. A store patron who observed the incident later inspected the seat and discovered that a prong on the belt’s snap was broken. Shuff sued the grocery store on behalf of her daughter on a negligence theory for damages caused by “ruin, vice, or defect in things.” In the trial court, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Shuff argued that the store’s liability for the incident was governed by the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur becuase it had responsibilty to maintain the seat and its safety belt. The court denied Shuff’s motion and dismissed her claims.
On appeal, the Second Circuit explained that res ipsa loquitur was inapplicable to Shuff’s claim because ample direct evidence on the elements existed. In fact, on the element of whether the store knew or should have known of the problem with the belt snap, the direct evidence worked against Shuff’s negligence argument. The store’s assistant manager testified that no store employees had any knowledge of the problem with the snap prior to Cloe’s fall. Further, Shuff’s own testimony that the snap was functioning properly at the time she buckled Cloe into the seat “demonstrate[d] a lack of constructive knowledge of the defect” by the store employees. Essentially, the court determined that if Shuff did not obtain actual knowledge of a problem with the snap at the time she placed her daughter in the seat, it could reasonably not impute constructive knowledge of the problem to the store. Thus, the court concluded that “[s]ince actual or constructive knowledge is an essential element of the plaintiff’s cause of action,” Shuff failed to prove her claim. The court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the action.
The Shuff case demonstrates that basic negligence principles govern the outcome of most disputes. Although certain doctrines like res ipsa loquitur exist to address unusual situations (such as when direct evidence is truly unavailable), courts prefer to rely on traditional burdens of proof and to avoid presumptions of fault whenever possible.
If you have been injured due to a defective product, call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with an attorney who can help you build the strongest case possible based on the evidence so you can get the recovery you deserve.