Fox & Farley, Attorneys at Law

In Personal Injury Cases, The Thing Does Not Always Speak for Itself

In personal injury cases, a plaintiff may establish a defendant’s liability through a legal doctrine known as “res ipsa loquitur.” As explained by Tennessee courts, this rule—named for the Latin phrase, “the thing speaks for itself”—holds “the injury was probably the result of negligence, even though the exact nature of the negligence is unknown, and … it was probably the defendant who was the negligent person.” Put simply, if a plaintiff sustains an injury caused by something under the control of the defendant, a jury may hold the defendant responsible even if nobody witnessed the actual act of negligence.

Who Is Responsible for a Fire Nobody Witnessed?

Proving negligence under res ipsa loquitur is not always that simple, however, as illustrated by a recent Tennessee court decision. This case involved a terrible accident at a construction site. The plaintiffs were property owners who hired a general contractor to build their house. Shortly before the house’s completion, a fire burned the building down to its foundation. The plaintiffs subsequently sued the contractor and two subcontractors, alleging their negligence caused the fire.

Specifically, the plaintiffs said the subcontractors “allowed flammable rags to remain on or near the exterior deck [of the house] and also smoked cigarettes in the area.” Although there was no “conclusive evidence” regarding the exact cause of the fire, the plaintiffs argued under res ipsa loquitur, the defendants were liable, as they had “exclusive control” of the construction site and there was no other plausible explanation for the fire but the subcontractors’ negligence.

But as the courts later determined, the defendants did not, in fact, have exclusive control of the site, which is normally a prerequisite for establishing liability under res ipsa loquitur. As the Tennessee Court of Appeals explained, “there were numerous parties,” including the plaintiffs, who had access to the home site on the day of the fire. Indeed, the fire began on the outside deck, where any member of the public might conceivably have ignited the fire. The appeals court further noted the plaintiffs’ own expert witness could not rule out arson by a third-party as the cause of the fire. All of this meant the property was not under the “exclusive control” of the general contractor and its subcontractors.

That said, the court said the plaintiffs could still attempt to prove the subcontractors were responsible for the accident under the ordinary legal standard for negligence. If so, then the general contractor may also be liable for a breach of its “implied duty” to the plaintiffs to complete the house construction “skillfully, carefully, diligently, and in a workmanlike manner.” This appeals court therefore returned the case to a trial judge for further proceedings.

Need Help from a Personal Injury Attorney?

In any personal injury case, there may be multiple parties who may be held responsible for negligence. That is why, if you suffered loss in an accident or other catastrophic event, it is important you seek advice from an experienced Tennessee personal injury attorney. Contact the offices of Fox & Farley, Attorneys at Law, in Clinton or Knoxville today if you need to speak with someone right away.

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