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Ybarra v. Spangard

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff brought suit for negligence after he sustained injuries by Defendants during the course of a surgical operation. Judgment was entered for Defendants after the court held that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur did not apply.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. When Plaintiff receives unusual injuries while unconscious and in the course of medial treatment, all those defendants who had any control over his body or the instrumentalities, which might have caused the injuries, may properly be called upon to meet the inference of negligence by giving an explanation of their conduct.

    Facts. Plaintiff consulted Dr. Tilley (Defendant) who diagnosed his ailment as appendicitis. An appendectomy was to be performed by Dr. Spangard (Defendant). Plaintiff was given a hypodermic injection and was awaken by Dr. Tilley and Dr. Spangard to be wheeled into the operating room by nurse Gisler (Defendant). Dr. Reser gave Plaintiff an anesthetic and Plaintiff lost consciousness. The next morning, Plaintiff regained consciousness and was accompanied by special nurse Thompson (Defendant), and another nurse who was not a party to the suit. When Plaintiff regained consciousness, he felt a sharp pain in his right shoulder. Prior to the appendectomy, Plaintiff did not have pain or a prior injury to his right shoulder. The condition grew worse and Plaintiff developed paralysis and atrophy of the muscles around his shoulder. Plaintiff sued Defendants for negligence. The trial court entered judgments of nonsuit as to all defendants. Plaintiffs appealed. Plaintiff’s theory is that there i
    s sufficient evidence for the application of the doctrine of res ipsa liquitur.

    Issue. Is res ipsa loquitur appropriately invoked in cases of injury from medical treatments when there were multiple doctors and nurses involved in the care of a patient?

    Held. Yes. Judgment reversed.
    * The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur has three conditions: (1) the accident must be of a kind which ordinary does not occur in the absence of someone’s negligence; (2) it must be caused by an agency or instrumentality within the exclusive control of Defendant; and (3) it must not be due to any voluntary action on the part of Plaintiff. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is applicable to Plaintiff because he is a patient who submitted himself to the care and custody of doctors and nurses, is rendered unconscious, and receives injury from instrumentalities used in his treatment.
    * If the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur did not apply to Plaintiff’s case, then, because of the multitude of different doctors and nurses, it would be impossible for Plaintiff to recover unless the doctors and nurses voluntarily decided to disclose the negligent person and the facts necessary to establish liability. Doctors and nurses are not about to point fingers at one another. In order for Plaintiff to recover without the use of this doctrine, courts would be forced to invoke the principles of absolute liability, irrespective of negligence.
    * The condition that the injury must not have been due to Plaintiff’s voluntary action is fully satisfied. The condition that the accident must be one which ordinarily does not occur unless someone was negligent is fully satisfied.
    * Defendants argue that Plaintiff has not shown an injury caused by an instrumentality under a defendant’s control because Plaintiff has not shown which of the several instrumentalities caused the injury and that the instrumentality was under the control of a defendant. In a modern hospital, a patient is quite likely to come under the care of a number of persons in different types of contractual and other relationships with each other. But neither the number nor the relationship of Defendants alone determines whether the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies. Each Defendant was bound to exercise ordinary care to see that no unnecessary harm came to Plaintiff and each would be liable for failure in this regard.
    * It is manifestly unreasonable for Defendants to insist that Plaintiff identify any one of them as the person who did the alleged negligent act. It is enough that Plaintiff can show an injury resulting from an external force applied while he lay unconscious in the hospital.

    Discussion. If res ipsa loquitur was not applicable, then Defendants would be free to keep silent and Plaintiff would not be able to recover for his injuries. When the xourt determines that res ipsa loquitur should apply, negligence is presumed to all Defendants in the care of Plaintiff. It forces Defendants to talk, discuss, and point to the cause of Plaintiff’s injuries. It essentially transfers the burden to Defendants. This is appropriate because the Defendants had exclusive control over Plaintiff, the injury was not the type that would occur without negligence and Plaintiff did not contribute to his inj


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