Res ipsa loquitur is Latin for “the thing speaks for itself”. Directly translated, it reads “the thing itself speaks”.

In tort law, the four elements that make out negligence are

  1. Duty of care
  2. Breach of that duty
  3. Causation
  4. Damages

Res ipsa loquitur is a legal doctrine that allows for negligent behaviour to be proven on the basis of the surrounding circumstances. i.e. the duty of care and the breach is made up based on the circumstances (the injury).

For example, if a bus driver driving a bus falls asleep while driving down a hill, causing the bus to crash, causing great harm to the passengers on board.

Another example would be if a surgeon were to leave a pair of scissors in the patient after surgery.

In this case, the negligent act of the bus driver was so obvious and hence there was no need for evidence as to what had happened. Just by looking at the surrounding circumstances, what must have happened was very obvious and the court would be able to infer what had happened through common knowledge. Hence the burden of proof then shifts to the defendant to prove that he was not negligent.

Grace Electrical Engineering Pte Ltd v Te Deum Engineering Pte Ltd [2017] SGCA 65 (“Grace Electrical”) would be an instance whereby the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur was used in Singapore.

As held in Grace Electrical at [39] and [40]

“The three requirements for the application of res ipsa loquitur are identified in the seminal case of Scott (see also Tesa Tape Asia Pacific Pte Ltd v Wing Seng Logistics Pte Ltd [2006] 3 SLR(R) 116 (Tesa Tape) at [21]; Teng Ah Kow at [23]):

(a) the defendant must have been in control of the situation or thing which resulted in the accident (“the first requirement”);
(b) the accident would not have happened, in the ordinary course of things, if proper care had been taken (“the second requirement”); and
(c) the cause of the accident must be unknown (“the third requirement”).
Once the three requirements are satisfied, the evidential burden shifts to the defendant to rebut the prima facie case of negligence (see Teng Ah Kow at [22]).”

Grace Electrical at [7] states that res ipsa loquitur has variously been described as a “rule of evidence”, “an evidential principle of common sense” and “an exotic although convenient phrase” to permit the court to infer negligence from the very nature of the accident or injury in the absence of direct evidence on its cause. In that case, the court held that the seemingly simple maxim caused confusion as the “thing does not really speak for itself” (Grace Electrical at [7]). The court also stated at [64] that the res ipsa loquitur rule merely “enables the court in certain circumstances to arrive at an inference of negligence”. The court must still be satisfied “whether on a balance of probabilities” that negligence was present.

Hence, just applying the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur does not mean that the case of negligence is home and dry. It is merely an inference. 

Yours sincerely,



Scott v The London and St Katherine Docks Company (1865) 3 H & C 596 (“Scott”)