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In a personal injury or property damage case, it is the plaintiff's burden to prove the defendant negligent. Occasionally, however, a plaintiff to whom the defendant owes a duty of care is not in a position to prove directly what actually happened or that a specific act of the defendant was negligent. In a proper case, under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, the law allows a jury to consider the circumstantial evidence and infer that the defendant was negligent in some unspecified way.
Plaintiff, on behalf of the estate of Fabio Pardo, sued defendant Rais Construction Company, alleging that Pardo was fatally injured while delivering building materials to Rais Construction for a job it was doing at the residence owned by Barry and Susan Kleinman in Nassau County. At their depositions, Alejandro and Maria Pardo (Fabio's brother and sister-in-law) testified that Rais had engaged Fabio to pick up boxes from a hardware store and deliver them to the Kleinman house. They claimed that they accompanied Fabio to the site, where a roll of roofing material fell from the roof and hit him on the head. They testified that a man at the house opened the door but neither Maria nor Alejandro could identify him, nor did they tell him that there had been an accident. Further, Maria acknowledged that Fabio did not seek any medical treatment for the injury until about two months later. Witnesses for defendants, on the other hand, testified that they had not left material on the roof and had stopped work at the site three days before the day in question. A witness also testified that he had not engaged decedent to do any work on the day in question or in the weeks before that because of his concern that the decedent's extreme headaches posed a safety problem. In resisting plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, defendants argued that there were disputed questions of fact, including whether the accident had even occurred. Supreme Court initially denied the motion but on reargument granted plaintiff summary judgment against the Rais defendants on the basis of res ipsa loquitur. The Appellate Division reversed, stating that res ipsa loquitur may not be used as the basis for granting summary judgment in favor of a plaintiff on the issue of liability.
Under the circumstances, could res ipsa loquitur serve as the basis for the grant of summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff?
The Court affirmed the decision of the appellate court, holding that there were questions of fact precluding the granting of summary judgment to plaintiff against the construction company defendants on the basis of res ipsa loquitur. According to the Court, although it was possible for res ipsa loquitur to serve as a basis for granting a plaintiff summary judgment, it was only in the rarest of res ipsa loquitur cases that a plaintiff may win summary judgment or a directed verdict. That would happen only when the plaintiff's circumstantial proof was so convincing and the defendant's response so weak that the inference of defendant's negligence was inescapable.