U.S. Court of Appeals Explains Res Ipsa Loquitur Principle in Federal Injury Case

Cedric Smith sued the United States government under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C. Section 2671 et seq., claiming injuries from a fall off of a broken metal stool in a secured attorney-client interview room at the U.S. District Court in Rock Island, Ill.

Smith’s lawsuit relied on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur (“the thing speaks for itself”), claiming that when he sat on the stool, it tilted backward, causing him to fall, hit his head and suffer permanent injuries.

The district court judge granted summary judgment for the federal government finding that the Smith evidence was insufficient to create an inference of negligence because others could have broken the stool or Smith could just have fallen from an undamaged stool in the absence of negligence on the part of anyone.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago reversed the granting of the summary judgment motion in an opinion written by Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner, holding that Smith’s evidence was sufficient to create a jury question as to whether the government was negligent.

In the opinion, it was stated that the evidence that Smith presented to the court “was sufficient to meet the criteria for application of the res ipsa loquitur doctrine, in that a fact-finder could infer that the government was negligent. The decision to enter summary judgment in the government’s favor was thus in error.”

“Lacking direct evidence of negligence on the government’s part, Smith resorts to the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur (‘the thing speaks for itself’).” Blasius v. Angel Automotive, Inc., 839 F.3d 639, 649 (7th Cir. 2016). In circumstances where such proof is primarily within the knowledge and control of the defendant, this doctrine (res ipsa loquitur) permits the plaintiff to resort to a particular type of circumstantial evidence as support for the notion that defendant was negligent.

“If the plaintiff can show that he was injured (1) in circumstances that ordinarily would not occur absent negligence, (2) by an agency or instrumentality within the defendant’s management or control, then res ipsa loquitur permits the fact-finder to infer that the defendant was negligent.”

In Judge Rovner’s opinion, she considered the rule that if two reasonable contrary inferences are shown by the evidence, then res ipsa loquitur cannot apply:

“Judge [Harold] Baker cited the possibility that Smith might simply have fallen from the stool without it having malfunctioned in any way and the government pursues the same point on appeal.  See Britton v. University of Chicago Hospitals, 889 N.E.2d 706, 709 (Ill. App. Ct. 2008) (‘if two reasonable inferences are deducible from the same facts, one of which comports with defendant’s responsibility and the other is directly contra thereto, neither should be indulged to permit recovery by use of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. . .’); Nickel v. Hollywood Casino-Aurora, Inc., 730 N.E.2d 1212, 1215 (Ill. App. Ct. 2000) (res ipsa loquitur does not apply where injury ‘can be as readily attributed to pure accident as to negligence’).”

“According to Smith, when he entered the interview room and sat down on the stool, the stool ‘broke’ and tilted backward with the front of the stool rising and then back descending causing him to fall to the floor and strike his head.  As he looked up from the floor at the underside of the stool, he could see that there were bolts missing.”

Later when Smith returned to the Rock Island court house to the same interview room, he found that the stool had been welded into place.

The court held that Smith’s evidence created an inference of negligence under res ipsa loquitur and any contradictory evidence was for the jury to decide. The court of appeals concluded that the district court erred in granting summary judgment for the government.

“Their evidence in sum, meets the criteria for application of the res ipsa loquitur doctrine.  The record will therefore permit the fact-finder to infer negligence on the part of the government.  As there is a dispute of material fact as to whether the government was negligent, summary judgment was improper.”

Smith v. United States, 2017 WL 2704016 (7th Cir. June 23, 2017).

Kreisman Law Offices has been successfully handling catastrophic injury cases, car accident cases, bicycle accidents, truck accident cases and motorcycle accident cases for individuals, families and the loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the negligence of another for more than 40 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Bolingbrook, Calumet City, Westmont, Rolling Meadows, Romeoville, Bensenville, Darien, Deerfield, Buffalo Grove, River Forest, Oak Park, Oak Lawn and Niles, Ill.

Related blog posts:

Chemical Exposure Injury Case Dismissed for Failure to Disclose Expert Witness

Illinois Appellate Court Reverses Dismissal of Mesothelioma Death Case Based on Direct Evidence of Exposure

State Supreme Court Reverses Defense Verdict in Medical Malpractice Lawsuit Because Trial Judge Excluded Potential Witness