The mere happening of an accident does not give rise to any inference of negligence. On the other hand, it is established that the circumstances of certain accidents may be such as to justify an inference that negligence was involved. In the District of Columbia, an inference that a defendant may have been negligent is permitted when the following three conditions exist: first, the cause of the accident is known; second, the accident-producing instrumentality is under the exclusive control of the defendant; and third, the instrumentality is unlikely to do harm without negligence on the part of the person in control.
The property owner filed a negligence action against the defendant for damages to his plexiglass sculptures. The accident took place at his studio when a station wagon driven by the defendant was parked just within so he could remove the dents in his car. The property owner noticed that the car was close to his large sculpture. The property owner did not permit the defendant to park inside his studio but after he gave the defendant a dent-removing tool, he asked the defendant driver to remove his car as soon as he was done. The property owner then left to answer a phone located on a nearby wall. While still on the phone, the property owner glanced at the garage, which was within sights, and saw the defendant fall in the middle of his plexiglass sculptures. The trial court entered a directed verdict in favor of defendants for the reason that the property owner could not show what caused the alleged tortfeasor's body to fall or be thrown onto the damaged sculptures. The property owner invoked res ipsa loquitur on appeal.
Whether the defendant may be presumed negligent in the absence of proof on what caused him to fall on the sculptures?
The court reversed the directed verdict against the property owner and remanded the case for a new trial. The court determined that the facts required the trial court to permit an inference of negligence under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. The court found that the cause of the accident was known to be the alleged tortfeasor's falling body. The court further found that the accident-producing instrumentality was within the alleged tortfeasor's exclusive control and unlikely to do harm in the absence of negligence on his part. The court concluded that res ipsa loquitur could apply when the accident-producing instrumentality was a human body rather than an inanimate object. The court also concluded that the property owner could invoke res ipsa loquitur when the alleged tortfeasor was an eyewitness.