By Kyle D. Riley, of Smith Freed Eberhard
In personal injury lawsuits alleging negligence, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that a defendant breached a duty owed to the plaintiff. In some cases, however, plaintiffs are unable to supply evidence of any breach. This is when they have the option of utilizing the legal doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. The doctrine potentially relieves plaintiffs of the burden of proving a breach by showing that the injury would not have ordinarily occurred in the absence of negligence.
In 2013, plaintiff Jodi Brugh was riding a roller coaster at the Washington State Fair when a jolt caused her to hit her head on the safety harness, leading to a subdural hematoma that required brain surgery.
The plaintiff sued Fun-Tastic, the operators and manufacturers of the roller coaster, alleging that her subdural hematoma was the result of some unspecified act of negligence on their behalf. However, she was unable to point to any specific act of negligence. Accordingly, she sought to utilize the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which would allow her to bring her suit to the jury without evidence of a specific act of negligence. After the trial court dismissed her lawsuit, finding that the doctrine was unavailable, the Washington Court of Appeals reversed.
The panel held that because a subdural hematoma is not the type of injury one would expect while riding a roller coaster, the plaintiff was entitled to utilize the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.
“Brugh argues that general experience teaches that such an impact leading to her brain injury does not ordinarily occur on roller coasters, absent negligence,” wrote the panel. “Fun-Tastic argues that Brugh must show something more than just the extent of her injuries to show that the roller coaster operated abnormally. Fun-Tastic claims that the roller coaster operated as expected and that any jolts were the normal jolts of the roller coaster.
“We recognize that certain injuries are to be expected while riding roller coasters. For example, general experience teaches that people may receive minor bumps to their head from the safety harness of a roller coaster during a ride. General experience teaches that people may receive minor whiplash while riding a roller coaster. However, general experience teaches that a subdural hematoma brain bleed does not ordinarily happen while strapped into a roller coaster in the absence of negligence.
“To summarize, the parties do not dispute that Fun-Tastic owed Brugh a duty as a business invitee, that Brugh’s injuries were caused by Fun-Tastic, or that Brugh suffered damages. They dispute only whether Fun-Tastic breached its duty of care.”
The case was remanded back to Pierce County Superior Court for further proceedings, unless the defendant asks the Washington Supreme Court to review the decision.
Brugh v. Fun-Tastic Rides, et al., Wash. Ct. App. No. 51055-3-II (Mar. 26, 2019).
The opinion can be viewed here: https://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/D2%2051055-3-II%20Published%20Opinion.pdf