Citation. Katz v. Regents of the Univ. of Cal., 229 F.3d 831, 84 Fair Empl. Prac. Cas. (BNA) 129, 79 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) P40,287, 2000 Cal. Daily Op. Service 8544, 2000 Daily Journal DAR 11383 (9th Cir. Cal. Oct. 25, 2000)
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Brief Fact Summary.
Dr. Golde (Defendant) removed Moore’s (Plaintiff’s) spleen and blood products to save his life. Defendant knew that these blood products had great economic value. Defendant deceived Plaintiff and developed the cells without his consent. Plaintiff sued for conversion and failure to disclose.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
To establish conversion, Plaintiff must establish an actual interference with his ownership or right of possession. If Plaintiff has neither title nor possession, he may not maintain an action for conversion.
Plaintiff visited UCLA Medical Center shortly after he learned that he had hairy-cell leukemia. Defendant removed Plaintiff’s spleen to save his life. Even before the operation, Golde and Quan (Defendant), a researcher for the University of California, both knew that Plaintiff’s blood products could have great commercial uses unrelated to his medical research. Plaintiff flew from Seattle to UCLA several times because he was told that it was necessary and required for his well-being. However, these visits were designed to collect more research materials. Defendants then developed and patented a cell line from Plaintiff’s cells and licensed them for commercial development. The commercial rights were substantial and included cash payments and stock options. Plaintiff alleged that Defendants failed to disclose preexisting research and economic interests in the cells before obtaining consent to the medical procedures. Plaintiff also seeks to impose liability upon Defendants for the
tort of conversion.
There are two issues in this case:
* Are Defendants liable to Plaintiff for conversion in the unauthorized use of human cells in medical research?
* Must Defendants disclose personal interests unrelated to the Plaintiff’s health that may affect Defendants’ medical judgment?
No, Defendant is not liable for conversion. Yes, Defendants must disclose.
* Defendants are liable for nondisclosure. Defendants were required to obtain Plaintiff’s informed consent.
* Conversion protects against interference with possessory and ownership interests in personal property. Plaintiff’s argued that he continued to own his cells after their removal and Defendant’s unauthorized use of the cells constituted a conversion. However, no court has imposed conversion liability for the use of human cells in medical research. Plaintiff claims ownership of the results of socially important medical research, including the genetic code of chemicals that regulate the functions of every human being’s immune system.
* Under current law, the tort of conversion does not extend to the facts of this case. To establish a conversion, Plaintiff must establish an actual interference with his ownership or right of possession. If Plaintiff has neither title nor possession, he may not maintain an action for conversion. It is clear that Plaintiff did not intend to maintain possession of the cells after their removal. After reviewing applicable statutes and cases, the court found nothing to support the claim that a person retains a sufficient interest in excised cells to suppose a cause of action for conversion.
* The court gives three reasons why conversion liability should not be extended to encompass the facts of this case: (1) policy considerations; (2) defer to the Legislature; and (3) not necessary to protect patients’ rights.
* Policy considerations – The court weighs the public interest in a patient’s right to make autonomous medical decisions against the consideration that the court not threaten innocent researchers engaged in socially useful activities with disabling civil liability. The court did not extend conversion liability because it would utterly sacrifice the goal of protecting third parties. Extending liability for conversion would only indirectly protect patients’ right to autonomy. Since conversion is a strict liability tort, it would impose liability on all those into who work with the cells. It would not protect innocent parties.
* Defer to Legislature – It is the legislature that should decide to impose liability if they feel it to be appropriate.
* Not necessary to protect patients’ rights – Disclosure obligations will protect patients against the very type of harm Plaintiff suffered. Enforcement of physician’s disclosure obligations protects patients directly, without hindering the socially useful practices of innocent researchers.
There are two dissenting opinions.
* (Justice Broussard) I dissent from the majorities’ holding that facts of this case do not state a cause of action for conversion. Because Plaintiff alleges that Defendants wrongfully interfered with his right to determine, prior to the removal of his body parts, how those parts would be used after removal, J. Broussard concludes that the complaint stated a cause of action for conversion under traditional common law principles.
* (Justice Mosk) The majority opinion gives patients only the right to refuse consent and the right to prohibit the commercialization of this tissue. It does not give them the power to consent to that commercialization on the condition that he shares in the proceeds. Furthermore, any researcher or physician who is not personally treating the patient does not need to obtain consent.
In this case, the majority was fearful in imposing liability on the Defendants under the theory of conversion and strict liability. The court did not want to penalize researchers who were working on cures for diseases. If the court had found Defendants liable for conversion, the damage award would have been astronomical. If Plaintiff has neither title nor possession, he may not maintain an action for conversion.