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Moore v. Regents of the University of California

    Citation. 22 Ill.51 Cal.3d 120, 271 Cal.Rptr. 146, 793 P.2d 479, 15 U.S.P.Q.2d 1753 (1990)

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff Moore was a cancer patient at U.C.L.A. Medical Center where his doctor, over a period of several years, removed blood and other bodily fluids from Plaintiff which eventually became a “cell line” and was patented for commercial use, which aggrieved Plaintiff.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. That no action based on a theory of conversion may be prosecuted where the subject matter of the allegation are excised cells taken from Plaintiff in the course of a medical treatment; however, that an action may be based on theories of breach of fiduciary duty or lack of informed consent.


    Facts. Plaintiff Moore was treated by Defendant Golde at Defendant U.C.L.A. Medical Center for hairy-cell leukemia . This treatment course occurred between October 1976 and September 1983, and included several instances where Defendant Golde removed blood, bone marrow aspirate and several other bodily substances. In August of 1979, Defendant Golde established a “cell line” from the matter taken from Plaintiff’s body. Thereafter, on January 30, 1981, Defendant Regents of University of California applied for a patent on the cell line. On March 20, 1984, the patent issued and named Defendants Golde and Quan (a researcher at U.C.L.A.) as the inventors and the Defendant Regents as the assignee. Defendants Genetics Institute Inc., and Sandoz Pharmaceuticals were added due to their subsequent investments in the cell line. Moore brought suit alleging conversion of his bodily fluids had occurred by the Defendants.

    Issue. Did the Plaintiff retain an ownership interest in the excised cells and matter such that he may prosecute the Defendants for conversion?

    Held. No. Plaintiff did not state a cause of action based on conversion, but may prosecute the case based on theories of breach of fiduciary duty or lack of informed consent.  A tort of conversion occurs when personal property of one person is interfered with by another with regard to possessory or ownership interests. In this case the Plaintiff argues that the matter taken from his body belonged to him and that he did not authorize the Defendants to use the excised material to profit. Further, that as the result of the alleged conversion, Plaintiff asserts a right to a portion of any profit resulting from the use of the excised material. The Court notes that historically the tort of conversion arose to settle disputes between losers and finders.

    The Court examined Plaintiff’s claim under the existing law and found that no judicial decision could be found to support the claim, that statutory law drastically limits the continuing interest of a patient in excised tissue, and finally that the subject matter of the patent cannot possibly belong to Plaintiff. The Court noted a California statute which ordered that any materials removed from patients be disposed of in a safe matter. The legislative intent was, according to the Court, to limit the patient’s ownership of any material excised in the course of medical treatment. The Court finds that the cell line is factually and legally distinct from any part of materials removed from Plaintiff’s body.

    The Court is concerned with the rights of the patient. However, conversion is a strict liability tort which subjects innocent third parties to liability for acts which may not be under their direction and control. The court found that the breach of fiduciary duty theory and the lack of informed consent theory were better suited to protect the rights of patients. Thus, the Court declined to extend conversion liability in this type of suit.

    Dissent. The Plaintiff’s body is unique and based upon ethical and equitable concerns the Plaintiff should have a proprietary interest in the cells and tissue of his body.

    Concurrence. The Plaintiff wishes to have a legally recognized right to sell portions of his body for profit, and such a result is immoral.

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    Discussion. This case is an example of the cases which arise when new technologies force courts to re-examine historical principles.

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