Iowa Court of Appeals Decides That the Thing Did Not Speak for Itself

July 23, 2015 | Kristine A. Tidgren

The Iowa Court of Appeals recently affirmed that negligence must be proved and that merely showing that an accident occurred is not evidence.

The case involved a trial court’s denial of a requested res ipsa loquitur instruction in a negligence case stemming from a hog building fire. The case provides a helpful review of the little-discussed—but potentially mighty—res ipsa loquitur doctrine.

“Res ipsa loquitur,” is a Latin phrase meaning “the thing speaks for itself.” In the right type of case, the doctrine can constitute a form of circumstantial evidence. But, the doctrine is “of limited scope, ordinarily to be applied sparingly and with caution and only where the facts and demands of justice make its application essential.”

In TAMCO Pork II, LLC, v. Heartland Coop, No. 14-0412, 2015 Iowa App. LEXIS 629 (July 22, 2015), the plaintiffs thought they had such a case. The Iowa Court of Appeals disagreed.

In TAMCO Pork, the plaintiff was renovating its hog production facility. It contracted with one defendant to install the exterior infrastructure necessary to provide the facility with liquid propane gas, including installing a tank and gas lines to the exterior of the facility. The plaintiff contracted with the other defendant to install the gas lines from the exterior walls throughout the interior of the building to connect heaters and other devices.

One day, after the internal gas lines had been run, an employee for the first defendant arrived to connect the external gas lines to the building. He left the job site to acquire some copper wire, and one of plaintiff’s employees turned on the new ventilation fans in the building (which now housed hogs). The fans did not work initially, but after he toggled the switch, they came on. Less than two hours later, the plaintiff’s employee heard hog’s squealing, saw black smoke, and realized that the building was on fire.

The plaintiff filed a negligence action against the defendants, alleging that they had caused the fire through their negligent work. At trial, the plaintiff posited various examples of alleged negligence, such as failing to shut off gas valves and failing to inspect gas lines. The plaintiff also, however, asked the court to give the jury the following general negligence or res ipsa loquitur instruction:

Under the rule of general negligence, the occurrence of an injury allows you to conclude that the Defendants were negligent if the Plaintiffs prove (1) the fire was caused by fire causing materials under the exclusive control of the Defendants, and (2) the fire would not have occurred if ordinary care had been used.

The trial court refused to issue the instruction, the jury returned a defense verdict, and the plaintiff appealed.

After chronically a “lurking inconsistency in our law regarding the scrutiny applied to the district court’s refusal to give a requested jury instruction,” the court determined—against its preferred approach—that it was required by precedent to review the trial court’s refusal to give the requested instruction for an abuse of discretion. The court’s detailed discussion regarding this standard of review is helpful fodder for any attorney facing this issue in a pending appeal.

The court then turned to the key question in the case: Did the trial court abuse its discretion in refusing to give the res ipsa loquitur instruction? The court found that it did not and affirmed the defense verdict.

The court stated that to submit a case on the theory of res ipsa loquitur, there must first be substantial evidence that:

(1) the injury was caused by an instrumentality under the exclusive control and management of the defendant, and

(2) the occurrence causing the injury is of such a type that in the ordinary course of things would not have happened if reasonable care had been used.”

The court found that these elements were not met because the plaintiff had introduced no substantial evidence establishing the instrumentality or agency causing the fire. The court also noted that “fire happens, frequently in the absence of negligence.”

Looking to Iowa Supreme Court precedent, the court stated:

Negligence manifestly cannot be predicated of any act until you know what the act is. Until you know what did occasion an injury, you cannot say that the defendant was guilty of some negligence that produced that injury. There is therefore a difference between inferring, as a conclusion of fact, what it was that did the injury, and inferring from a known or proven act occasioning the injury that there was negligence in the act that did produce the injury. To the first category the maxim, “Res ipsa loquitur,” has no application. It is confined, when applicable at all, solely to the second.

In this case, the court found that the plaintiff could not prove that the instrumentality causing the fire was in the exclusive control of the defendants because the plaintiff could not even prove the instrumentality causing the fire. None of the testifying experts offered a possible cause for the fire. The court concluded that where, “as here, the cause or instrumentality giving rise to the injury is unknown, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is simply inapplicable."

So here--as is usually the case--the court found that the potentially powerful doctrine with the pretentious name cannot take the place of evidence that does not exist.