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Plaintiffs’ Evidence Insufficient for Res Ipsa Loquitur Inference of Negligence

District of Columbia v. Wayne Singleton, et al.
Appeal No. 77 (Maryland Court of Appeals)

by Eric M. Leppo, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

In District of Columbia v. Singleton, the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed the Court of Special Appeals, and reinstated the trial court’s decision to grant Defendant’s Motion for Judgment. The Court held that Plaintiffs failed to produce sufficient evidence in order to avail themselves of the res ipsa loquitur doctrine.

This was a motor vehicle tort action. The Plaintiffs, Wayne Singleton and his eight-year-old son, Jaron, were passengers on a bus trip to Six Flags amusement park organized by the District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation. On the return trip, the bus on which they were riding left the roadway, went airborne, and struck a tree on the side of the road. Wayne Singleton was asleep at the time of the accident and awoke only after the bus was “mid-air.” His son, Jaron, was awake, but was unable to say or recall what caused the accident.

At trial, the Plaintiffs’ only witnesses regarding the occurrence and/or liability were Mr. Singleton and his son. The Plaintiffs did not call the bus driver, other passengers, other motorists, or any police officers as witnesses. Similarly, the Plaintiffs did not have any expert testimony as to the accident, or introduce the associated police report.

The District of Columbia, sue for vicarious liability of its driver, moved for judgment at the conclusion of the Plaintiff’s case. The District argued that the Plaintiffs failed to meet their evidentiary burden, and did not adduce sufficient evidence for a prima facie case of negligence. The Plaintiffs responded that they were entitled to an inference of negligence (via res ipsa loquitur) because the bus left the travel portion of the roadway, based on Andrade v. Housein, 147 Md. App. 617, 810 A.2d 494 (2002). The trial court granted the Motion for Judgment, but the Court of Special Appeals reversed the decision.

The Court of Appeals granted certiorari to consider: “Whether plaintiffs may invoke successfully res ipsa loquitur in a single-vehicle, motor tort negligence action arising from the vehicle leaving the road, where the plaintiffs were unable to recall the seminal circumstances of the accident and failed to produce other reasonably accessible and probative evidence to attempt to determine the cause of the accident.” Singleton, at *4-5.

The Court set out the doctrine of res ipsa, and its application, to single car motor vehicle accidents:

With regard to a negligence action based on a perceptually single-vehicle accident, res ipsa loquitur (“res ipsa” or “the doctrine”) will be available, “if the accident or injury is one which ordinarily would not occur without negligence on the part of the operator of the vehicle” and “the facts are so clear and certain that the inference [of negligence] arises naturally from them”,

Singleton at *6 (quoting Knippenberg v. Windemuth, 249 Md. 159, 161, 238 A.2d 915, 916–17 (1968)).

The Court noted that the doctrine requires a defendant to have exclusive control over the instrumentality of the injury, and to do so means adducing evidence that no third-party or intervening force more probably than not caused the accident. Holzhauer v. Saks & Co., 346 Md. 328, 335–36, 697 A.2d 89, 93 (1997).

In light of the Plaintiffs’ complete lack of any evidence as to how the motor vehicle accident occurred, the Court held that Plaintiffs had not shown sufficiently that it was more probable than not that the accident was not caused by some other force or vehicle. The Court noted that the Plaintiffs were entitled to call other witnesses in this regard, but simply failed to do so. As such, the Plaintiffs’ case was not sufficient to earn an inference of negligence on the part of the bus driver and/or the District of Columbia as his employer.


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