Res Ipsa Loquitur

Mayer v. Once Upon a Rose, Inc., 429 N.J. Super. 365 (App. Div. 2013).  An employee of defendant, a florist, who was setting up floral arrangements for an engagement party, allegedly gripped a glass vase so tightly that it shattered, with shards seriously injuring plaintiff, a caterer who was nearby setting up for the same party.  Plaintiff sued for negligence.  The Law Division granted a directed verdict at the end of plaintiff’s case, on the grounds that he did not present expert testimony as to why the glass shattered.  On appeal, Judge Sabatino, speaking for the Appellate Division, reversed and remanded for a new trial.

Judge Sabatino canvassed in detail the caselaw about the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur (“the thing speaks for itself”).  The doctrine “creates an allowable inference of the defendant’s want of due care when the following conditions have been shown: (a) the occurrence itself ordinarily bespeaks negligence; (b) the instrumentality [causing the injury] was within the defendant’s exclusive control; and (c) there is no indication in the circumstances that the injury was the result of the plaintiff’s own voluntary act or neglect.”  In the posture of a motion for a directed verdict, once a plaintiff has established res ipsa loquitur through his or her proofs, “the case should go to the jury unless defendant’s countervailing proof is so strong as to admit of no reasonable doubt as to the absence of negligence.”

Here, Judge Sabatino found that res ipsa loquitur applied.  Thus, no expert testimony was needed.  “A jury does not need an expert to tell it that excessive pressure placed on glass can cause it to shatter.  That basic notion lies within the common knowledge of jurors and does not require scientific or technical knowledge.”  Expert testimony might have been helpful, but it was not essential.

Judge Sabatino rejected the argument that “the theoretical possibility that the glass was defectively manufactured foreclosed plaintiff’s invocation of res ipsa loquitur.”  Defendant had used the vase many times before, and there had never been a problem.  Moreover, the defense did not provide evidence for that “counter-theory” sufficient to destroy or conclusively contradict any inference of negligence.

“In sum, although the jury could rationally have ruled against plaintiff on the merits, the circumstances here did not warrant the trial court’s outright dismissal of plaintiff’s case before they had a fair opportunity to consider it.”  Res ipsa loquitur allowed plaintiff to get to the jury.