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Szalontai v. Yazbo’s Sports Cafe

183 N.J. 386, 874 A.2d 507 (2005)

NEGLIGENCE RES IPSA LOQUITUR — In order to succeed to on a negligence claim under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, the proponent must establish that: 1) the occurrence of the event resulting in injury bespeaks negligence; 2) the instrumentality causing the injury was within the defendant’s control; and 3) the injury was not caused by the proponent’s own actions or negligence.

A man “was injured when the ground caved in beneath his feet in the parking lot” of a restaurant. He contended that the hole was caused by an improperly decommissioned oil tank under the parking lot. He argued that the tank collapsed, “creating a hole six inches by twelve inches long.” The tank company testified that it had filled the tank with a material intended to keep it from collapsing. It also contended that the tank was not located anywhere near where the hole appeared, and that no work was performed in that area. Having failed to conduct proper discovery, the injured man sought to impose liability on the property owner and others under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. This doctrine “is a circumstantial method of proving the existence of negligence. The doctrine permits a plaintiff ‘the advantage of an inference of negligence to discharge the burden of proving negligence.’ ... To apply res ipsa loquitur, a plaintiff must show three elements: 1) the accident which produced the injury was one which ordinarily does not happen unless someone was negligent; 2) the instrumentality or agent which caused the accident was under the exclusive control of the defendant; and 3) the circumstances indicated that the untoward event was not caused or contributed to or by any act or neligence on the part of the injured person.” The Court held that the doctrine was not applicable to this particular claim. Here, the area where the man fell was not under the exclusive control of the tank remediation company. Further, the injured man could not establish that the sinkhole would not have occurred unless someone was negligent. The evidence was that the old tank was not in the area where the fall occurred.

The Appellate Division agreed with the injured man that a property owner has a duty to make its premises reasonably safe for its patrons, including the duty to inspect the premises for known or reasonably discoverable danger. Here, however, the man “failed to show a reasonably discoverable danger of which the property owners knew or should have known.” The hole did not exist until he fell. It may have been present for any number of reasons. “The ground could have settled, the water table could have risen, or perhaps a water pipe in the vicinity broke.”

On further appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed after analyzing the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, finding that the injured man failed to meet his burden under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. In order to fulfill his burden, he was required to meet a three prong test. He was required to show that: 1) the appearance of the hole in the parking lot bespeaks negligence; 2) the hole was within the restaurant’s exclusive control; and 3) his injury was not a result of his own voluntary act or neglect. The Court held that the patron successfully established the last two prongs, specifically that the hole was within the owners’ control and his injury was not a result of his own actions or negligence. However, it found that the patron was unable to establish the first prong, that the presence of the hole bespeaks negligence. The Court focused on the fact that the patron failed to undertake any meaningful discovery to support his claim that the owners breached their duty of care to him, and in the absence of such evidence, the patron could not succeed on an negligence action based on res ipsa loquitur.

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