Barrel falls from a building, hold the company liable unless they
can prove it was a non-negligent dropping of a barrel out a window.
The defendant, who was a flour dealer, argued that the plaintiff must lead evidence as to the facts in order to establish negligence.
Court of Exchequer
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 indicates that if the Court of Exchequer will buy the plaintiff’s case, the plaintiff can get £50.
Per Pollock CB (Chief Baron): "There are certain cases of which it may be said res ipsa loquitur, and this seems one of them. In some cases the courts have held that the mere facts of the accident having occurred is evidence of negligence, as, for instance, in the case of railway collisions. If an article, calculated to cause damage is put in the wrong place and does mischief, I think that those whose duty it was to put it in the right place are prima facie responsible, and if there is any state of facts to rebut the presumption of negligence, they must prove them."
Initially, in the lower court the case was non-suited through a direct verdict because the plaintiff could provide no evidence. Subsequently the appellate court concluded that, under these conditions, the fact of the accident itself provided sufficient circumstantial evidence to establish the breach of a duty of care. Baron Pollock said the following.
“ I think it would be wrong to lay down as a rule that in no case can a presumption of negligence arise from the fact of an accident. Suppose in this case the barrel had rolled out of the warehouse and fallen on the plaintiff how could he possibly ascertain from what cause it occurred? It is the duty of persons who keep barrels in a warehouse to take care that they do not roll out, and I think that such a case would, beyond all doubt, afford prima facie evidence of negligence. A barrel could not roll out of a warehouse without some negligence, and to say that a plaintiff who is injured by it must call witnesses from the warehouse to prove negligence seems to me preposterous. The present case upon the evidence comes to this, a man is passing in front of the premises of a dealer in flour, and there falls down upon him a barrel of flour. I think it apparent that the barrel was in the custody of the defendant who occupied the premises, and who is responsible for the acts of his servants who had the control of it; and in my opinion the fact of its falling is prima facie evidence of negligence, and the plaintiff who was injured by it is not bound to show that it could not fall without negligence, but if there are any facts inconsistent with negligence it is for the defendant to prove them.