If buses could fly, must I prove why before I have a case I can try?
According to the Maryland's highest court, the operator of a bus that became "airborne" while traveling on Route 50 West in Prince George's County cannot be held liable based upon that fact alone. Rejecting the claims of two passengers injured when a Washington, D.C. bus made a crash landing into a tree off the side of the road, the Court of Appeals found that evidence to be insufficient to warrant an inference of negligence on the part of its driver.
Rather than call witnesses to explain how the bus took off to such unfriendly skies, Plaintiffs Wayne and Jaron Singleton argued that, because such a single-vehicle accident ordinarily would not occur without some fault on the part of the bus driver, the defense should have the duty to prove otherwise under what is known as the legal doctrine of res ipsa loquitor (literally, "the thing speaks for itself"). But a unanimous court refused to apply this doctrine, particularly in a case where Plaintiffs' counsel failed to have any actual witnesses speak about what may have caused this unusual incident.
In the Court's view, the doctrine would only apply under circumstances in which one could rule out causes other than driver error. "With regard to a negligence action based on a perceptually single-vehicle accident, [the doctrine] will be available 'if the accident or injury is one which ordinarily would not occur without negligence on the part of the operator of the vehicle' and 'the facts are so clear and certain that the inference [of negligence] arises naturally from them.'"
Although the Court recognized a number of older cases in which such inferences were made in single-vehicle accidents, it refused to draw this inference where there were a number of witnesses to the accident available to testify. But because of their attorney's "apparent tactical decision to avoid reasonably available witnesses," Plaintiff's "unnecessarily barebones case-in-chief failed to eliminate sufficiently other causes of the accident, and failed to evince that the bus driver's negligence was the most probable causative factor." Rather than shift this burden of proof to the defense, the Court refused to let Plaintiffs "merely ... prove that the bus left the road and rest, taking advantage of res ipsa loquitur to plug the hole in the doughnut" of their case.
District of Columbia v. Singleton
March 20, 2012