The opinion of the court was delivered by: PINE
Defendant has moved for a new trial 'and/or' to have the verdict and judgment set aside and judgment entered in accordance with its motion for a directed verdict pursuant to Rules 59 and 50(b), F.R.C.P., 28 U.S.C.A. The ground for the motion under Rule 50(b) is the submission of the case to the jury under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.
The Court, in considering a motion by a defendant for a directed verdict, must construe the evidence most favorably to the plaintiff and give him the full effect of every legitimate inference therefrom. This criterion is applicable on a motion to set aside a verdict under Rule 50(b), supra, and has been followed herein.
Plaintiff was standing on the public sidewalk, waiting for a streetcar. nearby, defendant was engaged in work incident to the installation of new gas pipes from the main in the street to the adjacent buildings. Interspaced sections of the concrete sidewalk had been broken and the fragments moved to one side. Defendant's employees and no others were in the spaces where the concrete had been removed. They were engaged in digging therein with picks. While they were so engaged, an object was propelled toward and against plaintiff from the locality where one of the men was picking, about ten feet away.
It struck plaintiff on the head, causing him to be seriously injured, particularly in the destruction of hearing in one ear, partial destruction of hearing in the other, and impairment of equilibrium. Plaintiff was free from any fault on his part.
The question is whether the case is one which properly can be submitted to the jury under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.
The latest statement of the doctrine in this jurisdiction is contained in Washington Load & Trust Co. v. Hickey, 1943, 78 U.S.App.D.C. 59, 61, 137 F.2d 677, reaffirmed by the same court in Safeway Stores v. West, 1950, 86 U.S.App.D.C. 99, 100, 180 F.2d 25. Therein the United States Court of Appeals held that the doctrine in question is simply that, when the cause of a4 accident is known, in the defendant's control, and unlikely to do harm unless the person in control is negligent, the defendant's negligence may be inferred without additional evidence, and the case should go to the jury. The Court furthermore held that there is nothing arbitrary or technical about the principle, except its same. Applying that principle of law to this case, under the above statement of facts, it appears to come literally within the doctrine.
But defendant argues that it cannot be applied literally and that some of the elements are lacking. Taking up its second point first, defendant contends that the cause of the accident is not known, inasmuch as there is no witness who saw the object leave the employe's pick. That contention, however, ignores the rule that facts can be established by circumstantial as well as direct evidence and there appears no rational basis for explaining the propulsion of the object against plaintiff, under the foregoing facts, other than that it was an act of defendant's employe while engaged in the picking operations. Defendant does not attempt to explain it otherwise, but contends that it did not occur as claimed. In this connection, defendant confuses the cause of the accident with the manner in
But defendant argues that it cannot be applied literally and that some the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. Moreover, there having being a dispute in the evidence as to the cause of the accident, that dispute was for the jury, who were told that before they might apply the doctrine, they must find that an employe of defendant caused the object to be propelled against plaintiff by the use of an instrument exclusively in his possession. They were further told that, when an accident occurs and in addition thereto where the instrumentality or agency causing it is known, and is in the exclusive possession of the party causing it, and the accident is of such a character as, in the light of ordinary experience, is unlikely to occur except as a result of negligence, it is then permissible to apply the doctrine.
Defendant's first point, as I understand it, is that this doctrine cannot be applied literally, but is limited to certain categories, such as complicated mechanical devices, e. g. railroad trains, elevators, and boilers, and to falling objects. While recognizing that the doctrine has generally been so applied, I can see no reason for limiting it to such categories if its rationale is broad enough to cover others, and in this connection it is helpful to set forth briefly the history and development of the doctrine.
During the early part of the 19th Century, the English courts began to refer to a presumption of negligence which arose against a railway company when an accident occurred upon the railroad line and injured a passenger through no fault of his own.
This presumption of negligence seems to have been confined to railroad accident cases until the now famous case of Byrne v. Poadle,
wherein incidentally the term res ipsa loquitur appears to have been first introduced into the law of torts.
In that case the plaintiff was walking along a public highway, and when in front of defendant's shop, he was struck down by a barrel of flour which rolled out of a high window. Upon hearing the plaintiffs case, the trial judge granted a nonsuit. On appeal to the Court of Exchequer, which resulted in a reversal, defense counsel made the point that there was not a scintilla of evidence concerning negligence unless the occurrence was of itself evidence of negligence, whereupon Pollock, C. B., stated: 'There are certain cases of which it may be said, res ipsa loquitur, and this seems one of them. In some cases the courts have held that the mere fact of the accident having occurred is evidence of negligence, as, for instance, in the case of railway collisions.' Two years later, in Scott v. London and St. Katherine Docks Co., 1865, 3 H & C 596, 159 Eng. Rep. 665, the Court of Exchequer Chamber had a similar question before it in a case where six bags of sugar fell on plaintiff when he was passing in front of a warehouse in defendants' dock.
In deciding that there had been enough evidence to allow the case to go to the jury, Chief Justice Erle set forth the elements of the doctrine in the following language: 'There must be reasonable evidence of negligence. But where the think is shown to be under the management of the defendant or his servants, and the accident is such as in the ordinary course of things does not happen if those who have the management use proper care, it affords reasonable evidence, in the absence of explanation by the defendants, that the accident arose from want of care.'
Such roots of the doctrine, while applicable to railway and falling objects, do not suggest a limitation thereto, but set forth the broad principles for application to facts and circumstances coming within its purview, and I find nothing in this or other jurisdictions to suggest that the doctrine is restricted to any particular pattern of facts.
In this jurisdiction, the law of which is controlling, the pattern has been varied. The first reported acknowledgment of the doctrine in the District of Columbia which has come to my attention is found, as was to be expected, in relation to railway collision and derailment cases.
The rule is then extended to cover situations involving injuries sustained by a passenger of an electric streetcar when struck by conductor who unexplainably lost his balance when the car was in motion,
noxious substance in a coca cola bottle,
exploding carbonated water bottles,
streetcar and truck collisions,
collapsing hotel chairs,
and flying door springs.
It will thus be seen that the doctrine has not been restricted in this jurisdiction to certain categories, but has reached out to other circumstances when they came within its principle. The same is true in the States.
While research has not unearthed a case identical with the one at bar, it has brought to light one close to it. In Louisville Baseball Club v. Hill, 1942, 291 Ky. 333, 164 S.W.2d 398, the Court of Appeals of Kentucky affirmed the application by the trial court of the doctrine where a boy who was walking on a public street on his way to a pall game was struck by a baseball which came over the fence surrounding defendant's baseball park. Although the case seems to fall within the flying object category, the court cited the falling object cases in support of its position.
Another case, similar fact,ally, is Muller v. George M. Brewster & Son, 1940, 124 N.J.L. 417, 11 A.2d 749, where the Supreme Court of New Jersey affirmed a jury instruction on res ipsa in a pedestrian's action to recover for injuries resulting from being struck by a stone allegedly propelled by a steam compression drill used by employees of defendant, in making an excavation in the ...