Washington Court Finds No Proximate Cause and No Res Ipsa Loquitur in Ladder Fall Case

The plaintiff in a negligence case generally must prove all four elements of negligence.  In some rare cases, however, a Washington personal injury defendant may not have to prove the negligence elements based on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.  Res ipsa loquitur is a doctrine that allows plaintiffs to succeed on a negligence claim without proving a specific act of negligence in certain circumstances.  The plaintiff must show that the accident that resulted in the injury is a type that does not ordinarily occur absent negligence, that the injury was caused by something within the defendants’ exclusive control, and that the plaintiff did not contribute to the accident.

A plaintiff recently argued res ipsa loquitur applied to his fall from a ladder.  A friend asked the plaintiff to help him attach trim to the soffit of an outbuilding on some property he co-owned.  The friend had set up two stepladders.  The friend held the ladder as the plaintiff ascended it.  The plaintiff had not asked him to do so and did not expect him to continue to hold it.  The plaintiff stated the ladder felt steady, but the next thing he remembers is being on the ground with blurry vision.  He did not know if the ladder broke or just fell. He did not see it after he fell.

The plaintiff sustained a punctured lung, torn spleen, and other injuries.  The friend later told the plaintiff he did not know what happened.  He turned his back and the next thing he knew, the plaintiff was on the ground.

The plaintiff sued the friend and other property owners.  At his deposition, the friend said the ladder was on level, packed dirt.  He stated it did not have slip-resistant feet and could not remember if it was braced.  He could not recall if he inspected it before he set it up.  He could not remember how long he’d had the ladder or the last time he used it.  He remembered holding the ladder while the plaintiff climbed it. He said the ladder had been stolen since the accident.

The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing the plaintiff had not presented evidence of proximate cause.

The plaintiff argued res ipsa loquitur applied.  He also pointed to several facts that would allow a reasonable juror to find a breach and proximate cause.  He argued that the friend had not inspected the ladder nor had he inspected the side rails to see if they were straight.  He stated the ladder was placed on “fairly level” land and not a truly level support surface.  It did not have slip-resistant feet and was not braced.  The friend did not know the ladder’s age or weight capacity.  He argued the friend could not state whether the ladder was completely open.  He further argued that the friend did not know whether the plaintiff had finished climbing when he let go of the ladder and did not warn the plaintiff he was going to let go.  Finally, the plaintiff argued that, due to his extensive experience with ladders, it is unlikely he would have fallen unless the ladder was unsteady.  Despite the plaintiff’s arguments, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.  The plaintiff appealed.

The plaintiff argued the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because a reasonable juror could find negligence and proximate cause based on the facts he identified.  Alternatively, he argued res ipsa loquitur applied.

In a Washington negligence case, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant owed him or her a duty and breached it.  The plaintiff must also show the breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.  Proximate cause consists of two elements: cause in fact and legal causation. Cause in fact is the actual cause of the injury, meaning that “but for” the defendant’s actions, the injury would not have occurred.

The appeals court considered two previous cases, one where the plaintiff did not remember what happened and another where the plaintiff did not know how the accident occurred, but offered a theory.  In both, the court found summary judgment was appropriate due to the lack of evidence of proximate cause.  Here, the appeals court found the facts identified by the plaintiff were “the basis for his theories about the cause of his fall,” but he had not provided evidence that would allow a reasonable juror to find one of those facts was the cause of his fall without speculating.  The appeals court found the plaintiff failed to establish proximate cause.

The appeals court then considered the plaintiff’s res ipsa loquitur argument.  The ladder was not in the friend’s exclusive control.  Furthermore, it could not be determined that the plaintiff did not take an action that caused the fall.  The appeals court therefore found that res ipsa loquitur did not apply.  The appeals court also distinguished between an accident that ordinarily would not occur without someone’s negligence and an accident that would ordinarily not occur without the negligence of a person in the defendant’s role.  It may be expected that a person would not fall off a ladder unless someone has been negligent, but that does not mean that a fall ordinarily would not happen unless the person who provided and placed the ladder was negligent.  Res ipsa loquitur did not apply and the appeals court affirmed the summary judgment.

In this case, unfortunately, the plaintiff did not have sufficient information regarding the accident to persuade the court that a reasonable juror could find negligence without speculation.  Negligence cases, however, are highly fact dependent, so a similar case with slightly different facts could succeed.  An experienced Washington personal injury attorney can assist you in evaluating your case and seeking compensation if you have been injured due to someone else’s negligence.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to set up a meeting.

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