Citation. Widmyer v. Southeast Skyways, 584 P.2d 1 (Alaska 1978)
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Brief Fact Summary.
This case involved a wrongful death suit brought by the representatives of passengers (Appellants) killed in a plane cash. The trial court (Alaska) returned a verdict by jury in favor of Appellees, airline and pilot. Appellants sought review.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, meaning “the thing or transaction speaks for itself,” permits a finding of negligence from the circumstances surrounding the injury. It does not allow negligence to be established from the mere fact of injury itself.
A Southeast aircraft crashed in the midst of a snow squall and no passengers survived. An accident reconstruction expert testified that the crash was due to pilot error, and that the pilot had been in violation of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules. The airline contended that the crash was due to foul weather. The jury returned a verdict for the Appellees. At trial, the Appellants requested a jury instruction informing the jury that they could draw an inference from the evidence that negligence was more likely than not the cause of the accident. Instead, the judge instructed the jury that the mere happening of an accident did not necessary warrant a finding of negligence.
Did the trial court err in its instruction regarding the particular duty of care of a common carrier and the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur?
Yes. The court did not find “that a complete factual explanation was offered” and thus Appellants should be precluded from employing the res ipsa loquitur doctrine. The court concluded that the trial court erred in failing to give the instruction on the duty of a common carrier and on res ipsa loquitur.
The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur concerns an important form of circumstantial evidence. This may be used to establish a defendant’s unreasonable conduct. In most negligence cases, the plaintiff specifies what the defendant allegedly did unreasonably. The doctrine is most critical in cases where the plaintiff is unable to make specific allegations about what the defendant did wrong.
* The court in Widmyer identifies the three conditional prerequisites to the applicability of res ipsa loquitur: “Traditionally, the doctrine has been applied when the following requirements are met: 1) the accident is one which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone’s negligence; 2) the agency or instrumentality is within the exclusive control of the defendant; 3) the injurious condition or occurrence was not due to any voluntary action or contribution on the part of the plaintiff.” In sum, the court states, “an accident that normally does not happen without negligence; exclusive control of the instrumentality by the defendant; and absence of voluntary action or contribution by the plaintiff.”
* The doctrine, the court noted, is fact based. So, with regard to the possibility of Appellant’s contributory negligence in instances where there is a dearth of evidence, the court explained, “If the requirement of no plaintiff contribution is strictly applied, no res ipsa loquitur instruction could be given where the plaintiff lacks sufficient evidence.” Thus, the court concludes, “To require the plaintiff to show that a crash was not caused by weather, as a prerequisite of the application of res ipsa loquitur, presents the problems inherent in proving a negative.” That being a logical impossibility, the court concluded that the lower court was in error in its failure to properly instruct.