The Rhode Island Supreme Court has rejected the application of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor (RIL) to products liability claims against a car dealer where plaintiff's injury occurred three years after the sale of the vehicle. The Court similarly denied negligent misrepresentation claims.
In 1998, plaintiff purchased an apparently used 1996 mini-van from the dealer. The salespeople represented that the the vehicle was safe. In 2001, the mini-van's airbags deployed while plaintiff was cleaning the van and injured him. Plaintiff did not have an expert witness to opine as to the specific reason why the bags deployed but relied on RIL to establish defendant's alleged negligence.
As an initial matter, the Court clarified Rhode Island's law on RIL. It noted that over the last thirty years, its decision have swung back and forth over whether's Rhode Island's version of RIL required a showing that the defendant had exclusive control over the instrumentality that harmed the plaintiff. The Court decided: "The critical inquiry is not control, but whether a particular defendant is the responsible cause of the [plaintiff's] injury."
It said the doctrine, as set forth in Section 328D of Restatement (Second) Torts, permits an inference of negligence when (a) the event is of a kind which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence; (b) other responsible causes, including the conduct of the plaintiff and third persons, are sufficiently eliminated by the evidence; and (c) the indicated negligence is wthin the scope of the defendant's duty to the plaintiff.
The Court went on to hold that plaintiffs could not avail themselves of RIL to prove defendant's alleged negligence when three years had passed between the sale of the vehicle and the accident. The Court agreed with plaintiff that the spontaneous deployment of the airbags while a person is cleaning out the vehicle is not the kind of injury that occurs in the absence of injury. However, in these circumstances other responsible causes had not been sufficiently eliminated by the evidence.
The Court also said that while defendant's representatives had a duty to to provide accurate information when they began volunteering information, there was no evidence the information was inaccurate when provided. Cruz v. DaimlerChrysler Motors Corp., 2013 WL 2154821 (R.I. May 20, 2013).
Although the facts were relatively simple, the holding is important because the Court reduced confusion about the applicable law in Rhode Island.