Legal Memorandum: Doctrine of Res Ipsa Loquitur in MA

Issue: Under the laws of Massachusetts, in what circumstances must a judge instruct a jury on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur?

Area of Law: Litigation & Procedure
Keywords: Doctrine of res ipsa loquitur; Instruct a jury
Jurisdiction: Massachusetts
Cited Cases: 1 Mass. App. Ct. 132
Cited Statutes: None
Date: 10/01/2000

Under well-settled Massachusetts law, the trial court will apply and instruct the jury on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur only if the evidence shows that the instrumentality that allegedly injured the plaintiff was in the exclusive control of the defendant and there are unusual circumstances from which the jury reasonably could find that the accident is of a type that would not have happened ordinarily, unless the defendant was negligent.  Osborne v. Hemingway Transp., Inc., 28 Mass. App. Ct. 944, 946 (1990) (circumstances did not warrant application of res ipsa loquitur doctrine).  It has long been the rule that in order for the res ipsa loquitur principle to apply, the "agency or instrumentality causing an accident and the essential surrounding circumstances must be within the sole control of the defendant."  Vozzella v. Boston & Maine R.R., 296 Mass. 491, 493 (1937) (emphasis added).

For instance, when it was not reasonable to infer that the greasecup head that hit the plaintiff came from the defendant’s train, because it just as easily could have landed on the track absent the defendant’s negligence and been set in motion by the train without the defendant’s negligence, the trial judge did not err in directing the verdict for the defendant.  Id. at 493-94.  Conversely, when even "some of the instrumentalities which might have caused the accident were not under the defendant’s control . . . an inference of negligence on the part of the defendant, from the mere fact of the [accident], was not warranted."  […]

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