Accidents can happen anywhere, but when they are caused by a careless person or business, the victim may be able to pursue compensation through a negligence claim. The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland decided a July 14, 2017 appeal involving a plaintiff who had been injured in a retail store. The plaintiff in the case was shopping in the defendants’ department store when a cast iron griddle fell from a bottom shelf and landed on her right foot. She brought negligence claims against the store owners, based on the legal theory of res ipsa loquitur. Following trial, the jury found in favor of the plaintiff. However, after the trial court entered a judgment notwithstanding the verdict in favor of the defendants, the plaintiff brought the current appeal.
In a negligence action, the plaintiff must present evidence tending to show that the defendant was legally responsible for her injury, although direct proof of negligence is not required. The plaintiff may instead invoke res ipsa to rely on an inference of negligence to be deduced from all of the circumstances. In Maryland, this requires the plaintiff to establish that the accident was (1) of a kind that does not ordinarily occur without negligence on the part of the defendant, (2) caused by an instrumentality exclusively in the defendant’s control, and (3) not caused by an act or omission of the plaintiff. If and when a plaintiff satisfies these three elements, res ipsa permits but does not compel the jury to infer a defendant’s negligence without the aid of any direct evidence.
On appeal, the court explained that, to satisfy the latter two elements of res ipsa, the plaintiff had the burden of proving that the falling griddle was more likely than not a result of the negligence of the defendants. The plaintiff must also demonstrate that the combined likelihood that her own negligence or that of a third party caused the griddle to fall was less than 50%. As a result, the court focused on whether there was evidence to demonstrate the defendants’ exclusive control of the griddle.