I Hate Latin: Res Ipsa Loquitur

Jamison KoehlerLegal Concepts/Principles, Miscellaneous


I only took two years of Latin in High School.

It was years before I actually admitted this to my children.  Because I often cited the Latin origins of a word, they assumed I was this great Latin scholar.  It was not until their education in the language began to overtake mine that I had to admit to them that, actually, my entire education in Latin consisted of four semesters in high school.

And I never told them that I was at best a mediocre student.   My father helped me with my homework every night – that was part of the bargain we struck when he forced me to take Latin – and our sessions consisted of a nightly struggle at the kitchen table, with him trying to coax the answers out of me and me trying to get them from him. It never occurred to me to just learn the declensions for myself. And he wasn’t there to feed me answers during the exams.

All four of my siblings went on to win the school’s Latin Prize their senior year in high school.  Years after all five of us had graduated, my father would occasionally run into the high school’s Latin teacher, Miss Donley, downtown, and Miss Donley would dutifully ask my father about all four of my siblings, going through each one of them in order of age.  But my father noticed that Miss Donley never asked about me.  After getting an update on my middle sister, she would leapfrog over my place in the birth order to ask about my younger sister.  I can imagine her pausing slightly as her mind elided over a mental picture of my charming and youthful face.

There are many possible explanations for this omission.  My father suggested she might not connect me with the other Latin scholars in our family.  But he was clearly being charitable; he knew very well that there are only so many Koehlers in Amherst, Massachusetts, and nothing ever got by Miss Donley.  No, the only possible conclusion was that she simply chose not to inquire about my well-being, her pleasant memories of my charming, youthful face notwithstanding.

Dismal performance aside, I have always thought that those two years of Latin with Miss Donley did more for my formal education than any other class I ever took – in high school, college, graduate school or law school.  Not only did it (briefly) impress my kids.  It helped with grammar and syntax and vocabulary.  It helped with foreign languages.  It introduced me to Julius Caesar, Psyche, and Roman civilization.  A passing knowledge still comes in helpful in learning many legal concepts.  And you have to love a language with the logical structure of German and the simplicity in word choice of a Raymond Carver short story or poem.

That said, my favorite Latin expression has to be Res Ipsa Loquitur.  “The thing speaks for itself.”  What could possibly be more eloquent? Michael Rahdert, our torts professor in law school, suggested we could impress our families with how much we had learned during our first semester by casually dropping this newly-learned phrase over Thanksgiving dinner.  I would have used the term as the title for this blog had it not already been taken by Jonathan Turley.

One of the major challenges to learning the law – a skill also tested by the LSAT – is the ability to think in the negative, to arrive at conclusions based not on what is there, as we are accustomed to doing, but on what is missing.  The defendant in a DUI case may have failed to signal upon turning right.  His eyes were bloodshot and glassy, and he may have slurred his words.  But for everything he did wrong, there are many more things he did right:  He was not speeding, swerving or crossing the double yellow line.  He posed no threats to other cars or pedestrians.  He pulled over immediately after the police officer activated his lights into the first available safe space off the road.  He was polite and cooperative and had no difficulty producing license, registration, and insurance.  And so on.  It is often what the officer did not write down in his report that is more important than what he did.

A similar concept lies behind the Res Ipsa Loquitur doctrine.  It is not what information is available to the parties litigating a matter or to the court; it is what is missing.  The court does not know — and cannot find out –what actually happened that caused the harm in a tort case.  But the doctrine allows the court to infer negligence or raise a presumption of negligence based on the circumstances or the nature of the harm.

A couple of months ago, I contacted Professor James Strazzella from Temple Law School to consult him on a case.  It was not Res Ipsa Loquitur I learned from him but criminal law.  In fact, whenever I have occasion to think of criminal intent, it is the image of the mens rea hierarchy in his chicken-scratch handwriting that comes to mind.

Professor Strazzella assured me he remembered me, though I am convinced he was only being polite.  But it doesn’t matter:  For every teacher who has forgotten me, or who never knew my name to begin with, there will always be Miss Donley.  Although she has long since passed away, I think of her with her horned-rimmed glasses standing in front of our classroom, Tempus Fugit scrawled out on the chalkboard behind her.  No matter what she may have suggested to my father upon running into him in the grocery store in Amherst, I am in fact convinced she remembered me very well.