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Colmenares Vivas v. Sun Alliance Insurance Co

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiffs suffered injuries in an accident, while riding an escalator. Defendants were granted a directed verdict when the lower court held that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur did not apply.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. For res ipsa loquitur to apply: (1) the accident must be 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 defendant; and, (3) it must not be due to any voluntary action on the part of plaintiff. If these three requirements are met, then the jury may infer that defendant was negligent even though there is not direct evidence to that effect.

    Facts. Jose Colmenares Vivas (Husband) and his wife, Dilia Arreza de Colmenares (Wife), (Plaintiffs) arrived at the international airport in Puerto Rico. They took the escalator on their way to the Immigration and Customs checkpoint. Wife was riding on the escalator, holding on to the handrail one step above Husband. The handrail stopped but the steps continued moving. Wife lost her balance and Husband grabbed her from behind to prevent her fall. In doing so, Husband lost his balance and tumbled down the stairs of the escalator. Plaintiffs filed suit against Sun Alliance Insurance Company (Defendant), who is the liability insurance carrier for the airport’s owner and operator. Defendant brought a third-party action against Westinghouse Electric Corporation (Westinghouse) based on a maintenance contract. The trial court ruled there was no evidence that Defendant had been negligent and that the case could not go to the jury based on res ipsa loquitur because at least one of the require
    ments for its application, that the injury-causing instrumentality was within the exclusive control of Defendant, was not met.

    Issue. Does the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur apply?

    Held. Yes. Judgment reversed.
    * Three requirements must be met for res ipsa loquitur to apply: (1) the accident must be 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 Defendant; and, (3) it must not be due to any voluntary action on the part of Plaintiff. If these three requirements are met, then the jury may infer that Defendant was negligent even though there is not direct evidence to that effect.
    * In this case, the first requirement is met because an escalator handrail probably would not stop suddenly, while the escalator continues moving unless someone had been negligent. This requirement would not be met if Plaintiffs had shown nothing more than they had been injured on the escalator, because on this fact alone, it would not be likely that someone other than Plaintiffs had been negligent.
    * As to the second requirement, the district court found that the escalator was not within the exclusive control of the Defendants. However, Defendants effectively had exclusive control over the escalator because the authority in control of a public area had a non-delegable duty to maintain its facilities in a safe condition.
    * The purpose of the second requirement is not to restrict the application of the res ipsa loquitur inference, but to eliminate the possibility that the accident was caused by a third party. It is not necessary for Defendant to have had actual control. It is enough that Defendant, and not a third party, was ultimately responsible.
    * Unless the duty is delegable, the res ipsa loquitur inference is not defeated if Defendant had shifted physical control to an agent or contracted with another to carry out its responsibilities. In this case, Defendant could not delegate its duty to maintain the escalator. There is no set rule used to determine whether or not a duty is delegable. The critical determination is whether the responsibility is so important to the community that it should not be transferred to another. Here, the duty to maintain a safe escalator, used rigorously in a public airport, is important enough to the community that it may not be delegated to another. Defendant recognized this duty because Defendant made daily inspections of the escalator despite the maintenance contract with Westinghouse.
    * There is a general tort law policy not to allow an entity to shift by contract its responsibility for keeping an area used by the public in a safe condition.
    * The third requirement for res ipsa loquitur requires that the accident was not the result of Plaintiffs’ voluntarily actions. In this case, there is no evidence that Plaintiffs did anything but ride the escalator.

    Dissent. The mere reason that the handrail stopped and Plaintiffs fell, without further evidence as to why the handrail malfunctioned, does not give rise to an inference of negligence by Defendant. The majority applied a strict liability rule incorrectly.

    Discussion. This case sets the three requirements necessary for res ipsa loquitur. As to the second requirement, the court determined that the duty to maintain an escalator was important enough that it could not be contracted out to avoid tort liability.


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