Byrne v. Boadle

Court of Exchequer, 1863.

2 H. & C. 722, 159 Eng.Rep. 299.

Prosser, pp. 229-231


Facts: Byrne was walking past Boadle’s shop and suddenly a barrel of flour hit him in the head.  Byrne sued for negligence.  He gets nonsuited (dismissed) for failing to make a prima facie case for negligence, but the court says that if the Court of Exchequer will buy the plaintiff’s case, the plaintiff can get £50.


Issue: Can the defendant be found negligent without any other evidence?


Rule: NEW RULE!!!  RES IPSA LOQUITUR!  The thing speaks for itself.


You can infer that the defendant was negligent if:


1.     The thing that happened usually doesn’t happen in the absence of someone’s negligence.

2.     Other possible causes (like contributory negligence on the part of the plaintiff or a third party) are ruled out by the evidence.

3.     The defendant violated a duty to the plaintiff.[1]


Analysis: Pollock basically says: “Well, what the hell else could have happened?  Barrels of flour don’t just fall out of the sky!  Somebody did something stupid, and someone got hurt!  What more do you need???”


Conclusion: I think the plaintiff got his quid.


Notes and Questions


1.     The only thing that the plaintiff has offered as evidence is the sheer fact that a barrel of flour fell out of the window.  The rule is that the plaintiff doesn’t need to eliminate all other possibilities, but rather the plaintiff only needs to show that it was more likely than not that the defendant was the one responsible.  If the defendant was a deliverer of flour, it might be easier to argue that “it wasn’t me, it was him!”

2.     Another book said that “Res ipsa loquitur, sed quid in infernos dicet?” is a phrase Prosser made up that means “The thing speaks for itself, but what the hell is it saying???”  I think what Pollock means is that this was such a crazy, weird thing to happen that the sheer fact that it happened, without more, shows that somebody was negligent.

3.     I don’t know why we should use it, except as a handy way to remember cases similar to one where we want to say res ipsa loquitur.

4.     The two requirements in order to use res ipsa loquitur are (1) the thing that caused the harm was under the control of the defendant, and (2) the thing that happened can basically never happen unless someone screwed up (i.e. was negligent).  In some jurisdictions, contributory negligence on the part of the plaintiff is considered (this is true in the Restatement).

5.     There was a different rule related to strict duties on the part of common carriers.

6.     Unfortunately people started calling this res ipsa loquitur too.

7.     Okay!


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[1] See Restatement, Second, Torts § 328 D