Sometimes, the very happening of an accident raises an inescapable inference that a defendant was negligent. Just such a case recently came before a New York County court. In Levin v. Mercedes-Benz Manhattan, the plaintiff was seriously injured at a Mercedes-Benz service center. As he stood under a heavy overhead garage door, the door suddenly came crashing down onto his head. Although the plaintiff did not know why the door fell, he made a motion for summary judgment asking the court to rule that Mercedes was negligent as a matter of law.
In support of his motion, he raised a doctrine known as res ipsa loquitur, Latin for “the thing speaks for itself.” Under the doctrine, a jury is permitted (but not required), to infer that a defendant was negligent where 1) the defendant had exclusive control over the thing that caused the accident, 2) the accident would not ordinarily happen in the absence of negligence, and 3) the plaintiff did not contribute to the happening of the accident. It is a breed of circumstantial evidence, and it is rarely relied upon by a court to award summary judgment to a plaintiff. But Levin is one of those rarest of cases where it was.
In Levin, the Court held that liability could only lie at defendant’s doorstep, because, simply put, in the absence of negligence, garage doors don’t fall on people. The fact that Mercedes hired an independent contractor to service the doors did not relieve it of liability, because the duty to maintain the property in a safe condition could not be delegated to an independent contractor. Mercedes failed to present an explanation for the accident that would relieve it of negligence. Having won summary judgment, the plaintiff can now proceed directly to a trial on damages.