Ballow v. Monroe

Decision Date29 March 1985
Docket NumberNo. 18861,18861
Citation699 P.2d 719
PartiesFrank BALLOW, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Dix MONROE dba Monroe Brothers, Defendant and Respondent.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Dale M. Dorius, Brigham City, for plaintiff and appellant.

Brad Holm, Stephen G. Morgan, Salt Lake City, for defendant and respondent.

STEWART, Justice:

Plaintiff, Frank Ballow, brought a negligence action against defendant, Dix Monroe, to recover damages for the loss of approximately one hundred acres of wheat and several rods of fencing owned by plaintiff which were destroyed by a fire apparently caused by defendant when swathing his adjoining field. The fire spread from defendant's to plaintiff's field when defendant was unable to extinguish or control the fire.

At trial, plaintiff submitted three res ipsa loquitur instructions, which the trial judge refused to give. A jury returned a verdict for defendant. The central issue on this appeal is whether the trial court erred in refusing to give plaintiff's requested jury instructions on res ipsa loquitur.

I.

The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur has its origins in the case of Byrne v. Boadle, 2 H. & C. 722, 159 Eng.Rep. 299 (1863), in which a barrel of flour fell from a warehouse window onto a pedestrian passing below. There was no direct proof of what caused the barrel to fall. The court, despite the absence of direct proof of negligence by the defendant, allowed the conclusion of negligence to be drawn from the inference that such an accident would not have occurred except for negligence by the defendant or his agent. The conclusion of negligence was founded on the probability that such an unusual accident would not have occurred except for negligence. Later this rule of evidence was combined with a rule as to the burden of proof and became known as the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. Prosser & Keeton On Torts section 39 at 243 (5th ed. 1984). Justice Ellett in a dissenting opinion in Talbot v. Dr. W.H. Groves' Latter-Day Saints Hospital, 21 Utah 2d 73, 78, 440 P.2d 872, 875-76 (1968), succinctly described the doctrine as follows:

When we strip away the Latin verbiage, res ipsa loquitur means that in the ordinary experience of mankind and as a matter of common knowledge, certain accidents and mishaps are so unusual and rare that when they do occur, there arises an inference from the happening thereof that somebody was negligent. The Latin expression is merely another way of saying that circumstantial evidence permits an inference of causal negligence.

Three conditions for application of the doctrine have evolved. The plaintiff must prove that: (1) the event causing the damage is of a type that ordinarily would not happen except for someone's negligence; (2) the damage must have been caused by an agency or instrumentality within the exclusive control of the defendant; and (3) the plaintiff's own use of the agency or instrumentality was not primarily responsible for the injury. Kusy v. K-Mart Apparel Fashion Corp., Utah, 681 P.2d 1232, 1235 (1984); Anderton v. Montgomery, Utah, 607 P.2d 828, 833 (1980).

These three elements must be applied with the recognition that they are not rules that must be rigidly applied in all cases, but guidelines for the type of circumstantial evidence that can be used to make out a prima facie case of negligence. Thus, the second factor, exclusive management or control, is not necessarily a sine qua non of the doctrine but may establish that it is more likely than not that the defendant was the party responsible for the injury. Something less than exclusive control of the instrumentality causing the damage may be sufficient if the evidence demonstrates the probability that the defendant was responsible for the damage caused. See Miami Coca-Cola Bottling Co. v. Reisinger, Fla., 68 So.2d 589, 590 (1953).

Some courts have also stated that a defendant must have greater knowledge of, or access to, the facts with respect to the occurrence giving rise to the injury than the plaintiff. See Buckelew v. Grossbard, 87 N.J. 512, 435 A.2d 1150 (1981); Hughes v. Jolliffe, 50 Wash.2d 554, 313 P.2d 678 (1957). However, if the circumstances give rise to an inference of negligence, the defendant's lack of knowledge does not destroy the inference. Prosser & Keeton On Torts section 39 at 254 (5th ed. 1984). See, e.g., Nelson v. Zamboni, 164 Minn. 314, 204 N.W. 943 (1925); Heill v. Golco Oil Co., 137 Ohio St. 180, 28 N.E.2d 561 (1940).

On this appeal, the applicability of the res ipsa doctrine centers on the first element, i.e., "that the event must be such that in the light of ordinary experience it gives rise to an inference that someone must have been negligent." Prosser & Keeton On Torts section 39 at 224 (5th ed. 1984). See also 2 Harper and James, The Law of Torts section 19.5 at 1076-77 (1956). Before a plaintiff is entitled to a jury instruction on res ipsa loquitur, the plaintiff must have presented evidence that the occurrence of the incident is "more probably than not caused by negligence." Quintal v. Laurel Grove Hospital, 62 Cal.2d 154, 41 Cal.Rptr. 577, 587, 397 P.2d 161, 171 (1965) (Traynor, C.J., concurring and dissenting). The plaintiff need not eliminate all possible inferences of non-negligence, but the balance of probabilities must weigh in favor of negligence, or res ipsa loquitur does not apply.

The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur has no application unless it can be shown from past experience that the occurrence causing the disability is more likely the result of negligence than some other cause.... In ... Tomei v. Henning, 67 Cal.2d 319 [62 Cal.Rptr. 9, 431 P.2d 633 (1967) ], the Supreme Court of [California] had this to say:

Since the res ipsa loquitur instruction permits the jury to infer negligence from the happening of the accident alone, there must be a basis either in common knowledge or expert testimony that when such an accident occurs, it is more probably than not the result of negligence.

Talbot v. Dr. W.H. Groves' Latter-Day Saints Hospital, 21 Utah 2d 73, 440 P.2d 872, 873-74 (1968). See also Prosser & Keeton, supra, at 248; Harper & James, supra, at 1078-79.

The probability that an accident was caused by negligence may depend upon the state of the art or technology associated with the instrumentality causing an injury. For example, the current safety record for aircraft has been held to justify the application of the res ipsa loquitur doctrine to unexplained plane crashes. In earlier aviation cases, the courts did not apply the doctrine to unexplained crashes because the then current state of the art did not...

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    ...interpretation of the exclusive-control requirement is consistent with mainstream American jurisprudence. See, e.g., Ballow v. Monroe, 699 P.2d 719, 721 (Utah 1985); Tompkins v. Northwestern Union Trust Co., 198 Mont. 170, 645 P.2d 402, 406 (1982); Parrillo v. Giroux Co., 426 A.2d 1313, 131......
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    ...must have presented evidence that the occurrence of the incident is 'more probably than not caused by negligence.' " Ballow v. Monroe, 699 P.2d 719, 722 (Utah 1985) (quoting Quintal v. Laurel Grove Hosp., 62 Cal.2d 154, 41 Cal.Rptr. 577, 587, 397 P.2d 161, 171 (1964) (Traynor, C.J., concurr......
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    ...non-negligence, but the balance of probabilities must weigh in favor of negligence, or res ipsa loquitur does not apply. Ballow v. Monroe, 699 P.2d 719, 722 (Utah 1985) (emphasis added) (citations omitted). Further, the court recognized that "[w]hen, however, the probabilities of a situatio......
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