Res Ipsa Loquitur Argument Rejected in Maryland Bus Accident Lawsuit: District of Columbia v. Singleton

A man and his son sued the District of Columbia for injuries sustained in a bus accident in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The lawsuit asserted vicarious liability against the District for the alleged negligence of its employee, the bus driver. The Court of Appeals of Maryland affirmed the trial court’s judgment for the defendant in District of Columbia v. Singleton, 41 A.3d 717 (Md. 2012), finding that the plaintiffs did not produce sufficient evidence to support a theory of res ipsa loquitur.

The accident occurred on June 20, 2008, when Wayne Singleton and his two sons, ages six and eight, were passengers on a bus for a day trip to the Six Flags amusement park, sponsored by the District’s Department of Parks and Recreation. On the return trip to DC, the bus apparently went off the road and crashed into a tree. Singleton and his eight year-old son, Jaron, sustained injuries in the crash. Singleton was asleep when the bus went off the road, allegedly waking up while it was “airborne,” and Jaron had no memory of the accident. Both suffered minor injuries.

Singleton filed suit against the District in January 2009 on his own behalf and on behalf of Jaron. Because neither plaintiff had personal knowledge of the circumstances of the accident, they relied on the theory of res ipsa loquitur. This translates literally as “the thing speaks for itself.”

A theory of res ipsa loquitur best applies when a plaintiff does not have direct evidence that a defendant caused an accident. It requires, according to Maryland law, three elements:
1. The type of accident does not normally occur except due to negligence;
2. The defendant had sole control of the instrumentality that could allegedly cause the accident; and

3. No act or omission of the plaintiff caused or contributed to the accident.

An additional element of a res ipsa claim is that the defendant has greater knowledge of the facts of the accident than the plaintiff. In order to prove that the defendant had exclusive control over the instrumentality allegedly causing the accident, a plaintiff must also produce evidence to show a greater likelihood that a defendant caused the accident rather than a third party or other intervening cause.

The plaintiffs, according to the court, did not produce evidence of the circumstances of the accident, apparently relying on the res ipsa doctrine to fill in the blanks of their theory. The only witnesses they called at trial were Singleton, Jaron, and a doctor who testified exclusively about their injuries. They did not call the bus driver nor any of the other bus passengers.

The plaintiffs relied on a case, Romero v. Brenes, 984 A.2d 246 (Md. Spec. App. 2009), in which a car went off the road, and the court entered a finding of negligence based on res ipsa loquitur. The court in the present case, however, observed that the plaintiffs in Romero produced eyewitnesses to the accident, who testified that the road was dry and that no other drivers contributed to the crash. This allowed the Romero court to make a reasonable inference of negligence. Because Singleton did not produce evidence of road conditions, other eyewitnesses, or anything else to demonstrate the context of the accident, the court concluded that too many other inferences were possible to apply the res ipsa doctrine.

The personal injury lawyers at Lebowitz & Mzhen are skilled at pursuing justice for people in Maryland who have been injured due to the negligence or illegal acts of others. Contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949 for a free and confidential consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Children Risk Serious Injury from Recreational Trampoline Use, Pediatricians Say, Maryland Accident Law Blog, October 8, 2012
Maryland Supreme Court Reconsiders Contributory Negligence Doctrine, Maryland Accident Law Blog, September 23, 2012
Maryland Appeals Court Rules on Issue Preclusion and Contributory Negligence in Auto Accident Case, Maryland Accident Law Blog, July 12, 2012

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