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Q&A: A window fell on my boyfriend

Q: Can I sue a business if I was walking by and their window fell on me? My boyfriend was walking by a business and one of the business windows fell on him. Is it worth getting a lawyer and suing?

A: Whether or not it is “worth” suing depends on how seriously your boyfriend was hurt – including all his damages, such as medical expenses, lost wages, pain, permanent injury, disfigurement, lost future earnings, etc. – and whether or not the responsible party is willing to offer reasonable compensation without your having to file a lawsuit. If your boyfriend’s damages are significant, it is probably worth consulting a lawyer at least for help calculating your damages and evaluating any offer he might have received. It is very likely, though, that the responsible party will not willingly pay for a significant injury, and he will have to sue if he wants to recover for his damages.

Aside from the injury to your boyfriend – and I hope he was not seriously injured – I love this question because it perfectly echoes a 19th-century English case everybody studies in law school. In Byrne v. Boadle in 1863, the plaintiff was struck and seriously injured by a barrel that fell from the second-story window of a flour shop. The defendant successfully moved the trial court to dismiss the case because the plaintiff, who knew only that the barrel had fallen on him but not how or why, was unable to show that the defendant had done anything negligent.

On appeal, the dismissal was reversed, the appellate court adopting the now-famous doctrine of “res ipsa loquitur,” which means “the thing speaks for itself.” Under this doctrine, where an injury is caused by some mechanism under the control of the defendant and is an injury that does not ordinarily occur without negligence, the burden of proof, normally on the plaintiff to show that the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injury, shifts to the defendant, who must show that the injury was not caused by the defendant’s negligence.

In your case, this doctrine – which was actually used in trials back in Roman times – might apply, or you might be able to prove negligence without the doctrine. Certainly, if your boyfriend’s injuries are significant, you ought to consult an injury attorney.