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Res ipsa loquiter did the apply because the defendant did not have exclusive control. Dermatossian v. New York City Transit Authority 67 N.Y.2d 219 (N.Y. 1986)


The exclusive control doctrine is a legal principle often invoked in personal injury cases, particularly those involving negligence claims. It forms a critical component of the res ipsa loquitur doctrine, a Latin phrase that translates to “the thing speaks for itself.” Res ipsa loquitur allows a plaintiff to establish a presumption of negligence based on the very occurrence of an accident or injury and the likelihood that such events don’t typically occur in the absence of negligence. Within the context of personal injury law, the exclusive control doctrine posits that if an injury or accident occurs under circumstances where the defendant had exclusive control over the instrumentality or situation that caused the harm, and the plaintiff did not contribute to the injury in any way, the law presumes that negligence by the defendant was the cause.

Dermatossian v New York City Tr. Auth., 67 NY2d 219, centers around Joseph Dermatossian, a passenger on a New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) bus, who claimed to have suffered injuries due to a defective grab handle. A grab handle on a bus is a safety device designed to assist passengers in maintaining their balance and stability while standing or moving within the vehicle. It is typically a sturdy, handgrip-like structure that passengers can hold onto for support. Grab handles are strategically positioned throughout the bus to provide passengers with something to hold onto during sudden stops, sharp turns, or other movements that might cause imbalance.

Factual Background
On May 5, 1980, Joseph Dermatossian, a passenger on an NYCTA bus, alleged that he struck his head on a defective grab handle while attempting to get off of the bus. The handle, according to Dermatossian, projected vertically down from the ceiling of the bus, deviating from the typical angle of about 45 degrees. Subsequently, Dermatossian  filed a personal injury lawsuit against the New York City Transit Authority seeking compensation for the injuries he claimed to have sustained.

Whether there was sufficient proof that defendant maintained exclusive control over the grab handle, warranting the application of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.

The Court held that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur could not be applied in this case, as there was insufficient evidence to establish the exclusive control by the defendant over the grab handle.

Dermatossian v New York City Tr. Auth. centered on an essential legal principle — the concept of exclusive control. Understanding the role of exclusive control and its implications in personal injury cases is crucial in comprehending the dynamics of this legal dispute. Exclusive control implies that the party had sole authority and responsibility over the instrumentality or situation that resulted in the alleged harm. Here, it was related to the control and maintenance of the grab handle on the bus.

The heart of the matter in Dermatossian v New York City Tr. Auth. was establishing whether the New York City Transit Authority had exclusive control over the grab handle. This was a critical point in determining liability. The defense argued that there was no satisfactory proof establishing exclusive control, leaving room for doubt regarding the cause of the handle’s defect. The grab handle was accessible to the passengers, making it plausible that the defect could have been caused by a passenger rather than negligence on the part of the defendant.

The court concluded that the plaintiff did not sufficiently prove that the defendant, New York City Transit Authority, had exclusive control over the grab handle. The court found that the evidence did not establish control of the grab handle with sufficient exclusivity to conclusively rule out the possibility that the defect in the handle might have been caused by an entity other than the defendant through negligence.

The key point of contention was that the grab handle was continuously available for use by the defendant’s passengers. This accessibility meant that it could not be firmly established that the defendant had exclusive control over the handle at the time of the alleged incident. The defense argued that the defect might have been caused by one or more passengers using the handle, rather than being a result of the defendant’s negligence.

Proving exclusive control can be intricate, especially when the instrumentality in question is accessible to multiple parties, as in this case. The crucial distinction lies in determining whether the defendant had complete authority over the object at the time of the incident. Failure to establish this exclusivity can influence the liability and ultimately impact the outcome of the case.

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