Idaho SC: Power company not responsible for man's burns

Jessica M. Karmasek Mar. 7, 2012, 12:00pm


BOISE, Idaho (Legal Newsline) - The Idaho Supreme Court ruled last week that a state power company was not negligent in a lawsuit over a man's electrical burns.

The Court, in its nine-page decision filed Friday, affirmed a district court's ruling, which determined that res ipsa loquitur did not apply to the facts of the case and granted Idaho Power Company's motion for a directed verdict.

Plaintiff Isabel Enriquez sued Idaho Power for severe electrical burns he received when he encountered an aluminum sprinkler pipe that had become energized by a high-voltage power line.

Enriquez claimed that after the power line broke and electrified the pipe, Idaho Power's safety equipment did not shut off the current to the downed line, allowing him to be shocked when he approached the pipe to move it.

The case went to trial, and Enriquez argued that Idaho Power was negligent under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which is a method of establishing negligence by means of inferences, rather than direct proof.

When applicable, the doctrine "creates an inference of the breach of the duty imposed and replaces direct evidence with a permissive inference of negligence," the state's high court explained.

Application of the doctrine, the Court noted, is limited "to those cases which are within the common knowledge and experience of the average layperson."

Idaho Power, which objected to the proposed jury instruction, arguing that Enriquez could not meet the elements required for its application, moved for a directed verdict.

The Fifth Judicial District Court heard argument and found that res ipsa loquitur did not apply and Enriquez had failed to prove that Idaho Power was negligent. Judgment was entered against Enriquez.

On appeal, Enriquez argues that the lower court erred in holding that res ipsa loquitur did not apply and that the directed verdict was improper.

"To proceed under res ipsa loquitur, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the instrumentality which caused his injury was under the exclusive control and management of the defendant and that the circumstances would permit an average layperson to infer, based upon common knowledge and experience, that the plaintiff would not have suffered those injuries in the absence of the defendant's negligence," Justice Joel D. Horton wrote for the Court.

In particular, the Court said it was focused on the second prerequisite.

"Taking Enriquez's evidence as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in his favor, we find that Enriquez failed to demonstrate that application of the average layperson's knowledge and experience would justify an inference that Idaho Power was negligent," Horton wrote.

"To the contrary, the evidence he adduced demonstrates that the circumstances in this case would require the trier of fact to possess and apply specific technical information, which is outside of common knowledge and experience, in order to justify an inference that the accident would not have happened in the absence of negligence by Idaho Power."

As for the directed verdict, the Court said it had no choice but to affirm the lower court's ruling.

"Enriquez's only argument on appeal is that the directed verdict was error because he presented sufficient evidence to allow his negligence claim to go forward based upon the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur," Horton wrote.

"We will not determine whether Enriquez presented evidence regarding the elements of common law negligence sufficient to withstand the motion for directed verdict."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at

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