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George Foltis, Inc. v. New York - 287 N.Y. 108, 38 N.E.2d 455 (1941)

Rule:

Where the instrumentality which produced an injury is within the exclusive possession and control of the person charged with negligence, and such person has exclusive knowledge of the care exercised in the control and management of that instrumentality, evidence of circumstances which show that the accident would not ordinarily have occurred without neglect of some duty owed to the plaintiff is sufficient to justify an inference of negligence and to shift the burden of explanation to the defendant. In such circumstances, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur relieves a plaintiff from the burden of producing direct evidence of negligence, but it does not relieve a plaintiff from the burden of proof that the person charged with negligence was at fault.

Facts:

Plaintiff George Foltis, Inc. ("Foltis") operated a restaurant. On April 10, 1938, a 12-inch water main broke and escaping water seeped into the premises occupied by Foltis, causing damage. Foltis filed a lawsuit against defendant City of New York ("City"), which owned and maintained the water main, seeking to recover for the damages. At trial, much of Foltis' testimony sought to establish that the City failed to act promptly on notice of the break and did not take appropriate steps to stop the flow of water. The City established that the water main was laid in 1929, that the pipe was new and as properly tested. At the close of Foltis' evidence, the City moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that Foltis' had failed to prove a prima facie case. In order to give further consideration as to whether the rule of res ipsa loquitur applied, the trial court reserved decision on the motion. At the close of the case, the City made a motion to dismiss and for a directed verdict; Foltis also filed a motion for directed verdict. The trial court reserved its ruling and submitted the case to the jury, which found that the City had not failed to use reasonable care in the construction or maintenance of the water main, nor had it failed to use reasonable diligence in shutting off the water. The jury further found that Foltis sustained damages of $ 2,500. The trial judge, disregarding the findings of the jury in favor of the City, held that the rule of res ipsa loquitur applied and, as matter of law, dictated an inference or presumption of negligence. The trial court then granted Foltis' motion for directed verdict. The appellate division affirmed. The City appealed.

Issue:

Did the appellate division err in affirming the trial court's order of a directed verdict in favor of Foltis based on the rule of res ipsa loquitur?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Court of Appeals of New York reversed the appellate division's judgment. The court held that rule of res ipsa loquitur did not create a full presumption in favor of Foltis, and, even though applicable, the burden of showing that the damage was caused by the negligence of the City still rested on Foltis. Foltis' proof that its property was damaged by the City's water main was sufficient to establish prima facie that the injury was due to negligence of the City, but where the City produced evidence to meet the prima facie case established by Foltis and where upon all of the evidence a jury refused to find that Foltis had proven negligence by a preponderence of evidence, its verdict could not be disregarded unless at the close of the case Foltis' prima facie case had become conclusive.

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