Res ipsa loquitur (the thing speaks for itself) refers to the inference of negligence drawn from the facts of a particular occurrence, where the occurrence itself is the only available fact from which such negligence can be deduced. Does res ipsa loquitur apply in cases involving falling objects? In Eze v Adderley Body Corporate (https://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZAWCHC/2024/7.html), the court answered this question in the affirmative.
The plaintiff instituted an action to recover damages for personal injury, alleging that he had been struck from behind by a piece of rotten wood which fell from a roof that the defendants had the responsibility to maintain. Although the plaintiff did not see the wood falling from the roof, he was staunchly convinced that it was evident from the surrounding circumstances that it had. The central question before the court was whether the plaintiff’s injuries resulted from the defendants’ negligence.
For the plaintiff to establish a prima facie case against the defendant, it must be clear from the evidence that such an incident would not ordinarily have occurred if the defendant had not acted negligently.
The existence of negligence may be inferred from circumstantial evidence. The question was therefore whether the plaintiff had discharged his burden of proof by demonstrating that the injuries sustained from the fallen piece of wood was a direct result of the defendants’ negligence, rather than a freak accident or otherwise unavoidable event.
The court found that the plaintiff had provided sufficient, credible evidence to show that the roof from which the piece of wood fell was water damaged, rotten, open and had birds living in it. The plaintiff also proffered evidence that the defendants did regular inspections of the premises and were therefore aware of the roof’s state of disrepair.
The defendants closed their case without presenting any evidence, rendering the plaintiff’s evidence undisputed.
As res ipsa loquitur burdens the plaintiff to prove negligence, the defendants’ failure to call any witnesses did not automatically result in an acceptance of the plaintiff’s evidence. The court held that in the absence of non-negligent explanation by the defendants, the plaintiff had provided sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie argument for the inference of negligence.
A reasonable person in the defendants’ position would have foreseen the reasonable possibility that the failure to take reasonable steps to maintain the roof in a safe condition could result in serious bodily injury.
Under the specific circumstances, there was no alternative reasonable explanation for the occurrence of the accident, other than the defendants’ sole negligence. The known facts did speak for themselves.
The plaintiff successfully relied on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur to prove that the defendants’ employees had negligently failed to take the necessary reasonable steps to avoid foreseeable harm, thereby causing his injuries.
This blog was co-authored by Brigitte Geyer, Candidate Attorney.