Whether the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies in any given negligence case is a mixed question of law and fact. The question of law is whether, under the evidence presented, the doctrine may apply; the factual determination is whether the permissible inference is to be drawn. When faced with a proper res ipsa loquitur instruction, the judge's duty is to determine whether the plaintiff has produced evidence from which a jury could reasonably conclude the existence of the underlying elements of exclusive control and probability of negligence. If there is no such evidence the instruction is properly refused. On the other hand, if there is evidence from which a jury could reasonably conclude the existence of the elements, then the conditional res ipsa instruction, which merely tells the jury that if they do find the existence of these elements then they may draw the inference of negligence, must be given.
Plaintiff driver was injured when a dock-plate in defendant company's loading dock malfunctioned. Plaintiff claimed defendant was negligent in maintaining the dock-plate. Plaintiff tendered instruction on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. The trial court refused to instruct the jury as to the doctrine and entered judgment in defendant’s favor. On plaintiff’s appeal, the court reversed the trial court’s judgment and remanded for a new trial.
Did the trial court err in refusing an instruction upon the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur where there was evidence from which a jury could reasonably conclude the existence of the underlying elements of exclusive control and probability of negligence?
Plaintiff driver’s tendered instruction on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur correctly stated the law. There was evidence from which it could have reasonably been concluded that it was more likely than not that the accident resulted from defendant company's negligence and that the dock-plate was in its exclusive control. Because the doctrine was not covered by other instructions, the trial court's refusal to give the instruction was error.