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What is Shifting Burden of Proof?

Jul 28, 2017 | Bellflower

Generally, in tort law, the burden of proof falls on the plaintiff. This means that the plaintiff holds the burden of proving the claims made against the defendant. This usually sounds fair because the individual making the claim should have to prove the claims they are making. However, sometimes fairness demands that the burden be switched on to the defendant to prove that they were not in fact negligent. In order for a Plaintiff to meet his or her burden of proof by circumstantial evidence.

Such is the case for the “res ipsa loquitur” doctrine. Res ipsa loquitur is Latin for “the thing speaks for itself.” Under this doctrine, the plaintiff is permitted to make a prima facia claim against the defendant for negligence, without actually having to prove the actual negligent act(s). 3-31 California Torts § 31.32

How To Prove Res Ipsa Loquitor Negligence?

Plaintiff must prove three (3) things,

  • The incident was of a type that does not generally happen without negligence;
  • It was caused by an instrumentality solely in defendant’s control; and
  • The plaintiff did not contribute to the cause
  • Res ipsa loquitur is important because sometimes it is impossible for the plaintiff to provide evidence. This is usually the case in medical malpractice suits where the plaintiff was unconscious when the negligent act(s) causing damages occurred. In Ybarra v. Spangard, the Court held that due to the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, the burden of proof switched on to the defendants when the plaintiff was unconscious during the negligent acts and was unable to prove which medical professional acted negligently, and caused her injuries. Ybarra v. Spangard, 154 P.2d 687, 691 (Cal. Dec. 27, 1944).

    Another case where res ipsa loquitur comes into play is when multiple people may have caused the plaintiff’s damages, and it would be impossible for the plaintiff to prove which exact person it was. In Summers v. Tice, the Court held that two defendants, who had negligently shot at the plaintiff, were both liable for the plaintiff’s injuries even though only one of them technically caused it. Summers v. Tice, 199 P.2d 1, 5, 1948 (Cal. 1948). The Court explained that it would be impossible for the plaintiff to prove which of the defendants actually caused the injury because they both shot their guns in her direction at the same time. Id. The Court therefore applied the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, and found both defendants equally liable because neither could meet the burden of proving they did not cause the injury. Id.

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