Indiana Court of Appeals Finds Res Ipsa Loquitur Precludes Summary Judgment for Indiana University in Premise Liability Case

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently revived a personal injury claim involving the legal doctrine of res ipsa loquitur and its applicability in the premise liability context. In Isgrig v. Trustees of Indiana University, Kiera Isgrig (“Isgrig”) was injured while studying in a building at Indiana University Bloomington (IU) when a window, which she and her friends had not tampered with, fell out of the wall and landed on Isgrig’s head, leaving shattered glass over her and the table she was sitting at. An IU employee came and examined the window. The employee noted the window could be partially opened when in its casing and other than two broken sash springs, which the employee believed would not have caused the window to fall out of its casing without warning, the employee did not find any other damage to the window and no reason to explain what happened, other than possible tampering at some point prior to the incident. The last time IU had performed maintenance on the window was around a year prior when it repaired the window’s blinds. IU did not perform any preventative, as opposed to reactive, maintenance on the window.

Isgrig filed a lawsuit against IU for her injuries relying on the legal doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which translated from Latin means “the thing speaks for itself.” The doctrine allows an inference of negligence in situations where the nature of the incident is such that the person having control over the situation was likely negligent, even though no particular negligent act can be shown. To get an inference of negligence against a defendant with res ipsa loquitur in Indiana, a claimant must show (1) that the injuring instrumentality was within the exclusive management and control of the defendant, and (2) the incident is of the type that ordinarily does not happen if those who have management or control exercise proper care. As to the element of exclusive control, it is exclusive control over the injuring instrumentality at the time of the alleged negligent act or injury, with the focus on who had the right or power to control and the opportunity to exercise the control.

Here, in response to Isgrig’s lawsuit, IU moved for summary judgment in the trial court arguing that even with res ipsa loquitur Isgrig still had to establish its liability under premise liability law by proving it had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition of the window, which it argued it did not have, and that it did not otherwise have exclusive control of the window, making res ipsa loquitur inapplicable. The trial court ruled in favor of IU and Isgrig appealed.

On appeal the Indiana Court of Appeals reviewed the applicability of res ipsa loquitur in premise liability cases. Under Indiana premise liability law, a possessor of land is subject to liability only if certain elements are met. In reviewing prior cases, the Court of Appeals recognized prior precedent could be read to hold that a claimant in a premise liability case must first prove the elements of a premise liability case before res ipsa loquitur could apply; however, the Court deemed such an approach illogical, as there would be no need for res ipsa loquitur if a claimant could first establish premise liability. Rather, the Court interpreted prior precedent as allowing the use of res ipsa loquitur in premise liability cases if the injury results from a fixture or other component that others did not or could not disturb and the incident would not normally occur absent negligence. The Court reasoned that if a claimant establishes liability under res ipsa loquitur, then a defendant necessarily would also be liable under the premise liability elements.

As applied to the facts of this case, the Court found the circumstances of the falling window better aligned with the precedent in which res ipsa loquitur was found applicable. The Court noted the window was a fixture. As to whether it could have been “disturbed” by others, the Court noted IU could be found to have had exclusive control and management of the window at the time of the incident, having the power or right to control the window, and a window falling out of a wall without anyone interacting with it is not something that occurs absent negligence. While others could access the window to open it or its blinds, a trier of fact could find such should not cause it to fall out of the wall absent negligence. The Court noted this evidence and the fact that IU had not performed any preventative maintenance on the window precluded summary judgment for IU as to IU’s liability for the window inexplicably falling out of the wall causing injury.

You can read the full opinion here.

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