Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Chair collapse provides textbook 'res ipsa' facts

plastic chair by Chris CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr
A textbook res ipsa loquitur case is headed back to the trial court since the Massachusetts Appeals Court in March reversed dismissal.

Res ipsa loquitur is a beautiful doctrine for all kinds of reasons. I like that it's a mouthful of high-dollar words, because that keeps lawyers' hourly rates high and justifies the high cost of law school, translating into more money for professors like me. It's also fun to teach, because of its odd position at the intersection of fundamental tort elements—is it a rule of causation? duty? breach?; its location in negligence law while bearing a striking resemblance to strict liability; and its double-life in doctrines of tort and evidence law render it theoretically instructive.

At the same time, res ipsa is a straightforward and commonsense rule, and this case before the Appeals Court demonstrates its utility. "The plaintiff ... was having lunch on the outdoor deck of Sundancers restaurant in Dennis when his plastic chair collapsed beneath him," the court recounted the facts. The trial court dismissed for want of evidence of negligence by the defendant restaurant owners.

Res ipsa says simply, plastic chairs fairly may be depended on not to collapse. So when they do, it might be someone's fault. And of everyone who might be at fault, it's not the plaintiff's fault. So even if the plaintiff can't show by evidence the precise mechanism of the accident, the plaintiff still deserves a chance to persuade a jury to infer the defendant's responsibility. 

You can find my more formal discussion of the rule in the no-longer-updated Straightforward Torts, to be incorporated into Tortz: A Study of American Tort Law in the coming year.

My 2006 torts casebook with Professor Marshall Shapo uses a case with a similar fact pattern to teach res ipsa loquitur. In O'Connor v. Chandris Lines, Inc. (D. Mass. 1983), the plaintiff was injured when the bunk-beds in which she slept on a cruise ship collapsed. Like Step Brothers (2008) if someone else had put the beds together, and not as funny.

The plaintiff from Sundancers sued years later, if within the statutory limitations period, so both he and the restaurant struggled to locate relevant evidence. There might yet be insufficient implication of negligence on the part of the restaurant to persuade the jury to make the res ipsa inference. But plaintiff deserves better than summary dismissal, the court decided.

Because the record presents a number of material, disputed factual issues—including whether Sundancers provided the plaintiff with a defective and unsafe chair, whether the defect could have been detected with reasonable inspection, whether reasonable inspection was made, and whether factors other than the defendants' negligence more likely caused the accident—summary judgment should not have entered. Were this case to go to trial on the record before us, the jury would be permitted, but not required, to infer that Sundancers was negligent under the principles of res ipsa loquitur.

The case is Kennedy v. Abramson, No. 21-P-224 (Mass. App. Ct. Mar. 17, 2022). Justice Gregory I. Massing wrote the opinion of the unanimous panel.

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