Res ipsa loquitur in Texas medical malpractice cases

Res ipsa loquitur is a common law legal doctrine that allows the jury to rely on circumstantial evidence to conclude that the defendant’s conduct was negligent.

Under Texas law, there are three requirements necessary to establish the res ipsa loquitur doctrine:

• The occurrence wouldn’t ordinarily happen in the absence of negligence.

• The instrumentality causing the injury was in the sole control of the defendant.

• The plaintiff didn’t contribute to his or her own injury.

Sullivan v. Methodist Hosps. Of Dallas, 699 S.W.2d 265, 267 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 1985) writ ref’d per curiam, 714 S.W.2d 302 (Tex. 1986).

The classic example of res ipsa loquitur in medical malpractice is a retained sponge or surgical instrument. It’s easily within the ordinary knowledge of laypeople that doctors and nurses aren’t supposed to leave disposable supplies or equipment inside a patient’s body.

That’s why the Texas Supreme Court has established that as a matter of law leaving a surgical instrument sponge in the case is negligent, finding that, “Sponge cases are sui generis. They rarely occur, they never occur absent negligence, and when they do occur, laypeople are hard-pressed to discover the wrong.” Walters v. Cleveland Reg’l Med. Ctr., 307 S.W.3d 292, 298 (Tex. 2010).

Another straightforward example of this common law doctrine is where a surgeon operates on the wrong body part. Res ipsa loquitur applies when the surgeon intentionally operated in the wrong body part under the mistaken impression that it was the correct one. Manax v. Ballew, 797 S.W.2d 71 (Tex. App.—Waco 1990, writ denied). Similarly, would also apply when a surgeon operated on the wrong patient.

Incidentally, although wrong site, wrong patient, and retained object cases are considered sentinel or never events that should never occur with any patient, they still do. Incredibly, over the past year, we’ve handled two medical malpractice cases against CHI St. Luke’s Health—Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center where entire surgical towels were left inside patient abdomens.

Needless to say, hospitals, medical malpractice insurance companies, and tort reform zealots don’t like this common sense doctrine. That’s why the Texas Medical Liability Act prohibits extending the common law application of res ipsa loquitur against health care providers are physicians beyond what Texas appellate courts have recognized as of August 29, 1977.

Even when relying on res ipsa loquitur to establish negligence without the testimony of a medical expert, it’s still necessary to have a physician expert offer an opinion establishing proximate causation. In other words, res ipsa loquitur doesn’t excuse the legal requirement of having an expert link the negligent conduct to the foreseeable harm and damages to the patient.

If you’ve been seriously injured by a Texas hospital, physician, or surgeon in a way that might trigger res ipsa loquitur, contact a top-rated and rated experienced Houston, Texas medical malpractice lawyer for help in evaluating your potential case.

Robert Painter
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Robert Painter

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm Medical Malpractice Attorneys in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him for a free consultation and strategy session by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.