In order to successfully assert negligence, a plaintiff must generally prove four elements: duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages. However, certain evidentiary and negligence doctrines allow a plaintiff, in certain circumscribed situations, to win on a negligence claim without proving all or some of the aforementioned factors. Among these doctrines is res ipsa loquitur, a evidentiary rule that generally provides that a plaintiff can create a rebuttable presumption of negligence when he or she is harmed and proves that the harm suffered does not generally occur in the absence of negligence, that the instrumentality causing the harm was under the control of the defendant, and that no other conceivable reason for the occurrence of the harm exists. This doctrine was raised in a recent opinion from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Battlefield Investments, Inc. v. City of Lafayette (PDF-embedded link), which involved a municipal defendant’s liability for a sewage backup that damaged property owned by the plaintiff.
The sewage backup at issue in this case occurred on September 21, 2009. On that day, the City of Lafayette, Georgia was experiencing torrential rainfall. This unprecedented rainfall caused flooding that the National Weather Service described as “historic” in proportion. Given the extent of the rainfall, the city’s sewer system was overwhelmed, and the manholes near the property where the sewage backup occurred were completely submerged in water, which would prevent the city from taking any corrective action to avoid possible sewage backups. This infiltration of rainwater into the sewer lines can create back flow into toilets in residential and commercial properties, and such a backup happened at a building owned by Battlefield Investments, Inc., the plaintiff in this action. However, and fortunately, there were no other complaints of sewage backups at any other property within the city.
Following this incident, Battlefield brought suit against the City of Lafayette, alleging that the city’s negligent operation of the sewer system caused the sewage backup that damaged its property. The city eventually moved for summary judgment, arguing that both sovereign immunity and the absence of specific evidence demonstrating negligence justified granting summary judgment. The trial court concurred and granted the defendant’s motion. Battlefield then brought this appeal.
On appeal, Battlefield argued that, despite the absence of specific facts demonstrating the city’s negligence, summary judgment was still not warranted because a res ipsa loquitur presumption of negligence can be shown, which would create an issue for a jury to decide. Under Georgia law, a jury may be permitted to infer facts of negligence in the absence of such evidence of negligence when the following elements are met: “(1) the injury is of a kind which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone’s negligence; (2) it must be caused by an agency or instrumentality within the exclusive control of the defendant; and (3) it must not have been due to any voluntary action or contribution on the part of the plaintiff.” Aderhold v. Lowe’s Home Ctrs., 284 Ga. App. 294, 295 (643 SE2d 811) (2007). However, res ipsa loquitur is only to be applied in narrowly circumscribed situations, and it may not be invoked when there exists an intermediary cause that could have caused the alleged injury.
In this case, the Court of Appeals noted two important facts that undermined the application of a res ipsa loquitur presumption. First, considering there was flooding of historic proportions that could serve as an intermediary cause of the sewage backup, the second element could not, as a matter of law, be shown. In addition, during the summary judgment hearing, counsel for the plaintiff acknowledged that the plaintiff could’ve installed a special valve that would have prevented the backflow. Accordingly, the third element could not be shown, since the plaintiff contributed to the injury suffered. Therefore, the res ipsa loquitur presumption could not, as a matter of law, be submitted to the jury for consideration. Since the plaintiff otherwise failed to point to any other triable issues of fact demonstrating negligence, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.
Although inapplicable in this case, the res ipsa loquitur inference remains a useful tool for those injured in circumstances that naturally suggest the occurrence of negligence. However, even in cases in which the doctrine may not be applied, comprehensive due diligence and research can often reveal facts that one can use to demonstrate negligence. Accordingly, someone who has been injured in a possible case of negligence should consider enlisting the aid of an attorney who can assist in finding the pertinent facts. The Atlanta premises liability attorneys at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have many years of experience with all stages of negligence litigation, including performing preliminary evidentiary research. Feel free to contact us if you would like a complimentary case evaluation to discuss your possible case.