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Ybarra v. Spangard

Citation. 25 Cal. 2d 486, 154 P.2d 687 (1944)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Plaintiff suffered serious injuries and pain after receiving a surgery at a hospital. Other doctors told him that his injuries were caused by trauma by pressure. Plaintiff sued all doctors and nurses that cared him during the previous surgery and hospitalization.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies where a plaintiff received unusual injuries while unconscious and in the course of medical treatment. All defendants who had any control over his body or the instrumentalities which might have caused the injuries were inferred negligent and had to give an explanation of their conduct.


Joseph Ybarra experienced abdominal pain and went to see Dr. Tilley at a hospital owned by Dr. Swift, who diagnosed him as appendicitis. Dr. Tiley then let Dr. Spangard to perform the surgeon. Ybarra was wheeled into the operating room by nurse Gisler, and then Dr. Reser adjusted Ybarra’s body on the operating table and administered the anesthetic that put Ybarra unconscious. After the surgery, Ybarra was attended by nurse Thompson. When Ybarra awoke, he suffered from pain and partial paralysis of his right shoulder and arm. Despite further treatments given by Dr, Tilley, Ybarra’s injury did not recover.

Ybarra consulted two other doctors who determined that Ybarra’s condition was due to injury by pressure. Ybarra sued Dr. Tiley, Dr. Spangard, Dr. Swift, Dr. Reser, and nurses Gisler and Thompson, alleging the negligence of somebody among them caused the injury.


Was trial court correct in dismissing plaintiff’s lawsuit which was based on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur?


No. Trial court was wrong. This Court reversed the judgment and remanded it for a new trial.


Plaintiff’s theory was that the foregoing evidence presents a proper case for the application of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, and that the inference of negligence arising therefrom makes the granting of a nonsuit improper. The Supreme Court of California agreed with plaintiff.

The Court explained that generally the application of res ipsa loquitur requires

“(1)  the accident must be of a kind which ordinarily 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 the defendant; (3) it must not have been due to any voluntary action or contribution on the part of the plaintiff.” (Prosser, Torts).”

In this case, plaintiff was a patient who submitted himself to the care and custody of doctors and nurses. If res ispa loquitur does not kick in now, a patient who received permanent injuries due to hospital employees’ negligence, would be entirely unable to recover unless the doctors and nurses in attendance voluntarily chose to disclose the identity of the negligent person. Therefore, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is properly applicable to this medical malpractice case.

The Court also clarified that the relationships and number of defendants alone could not determine whether the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur should apply. Plaintiff was rendered unconscious for the purpose of receiving medical treatment by defendants. It would be manifestly unreasonable to insist that he must identify any one of them as the person who did the alleged negligent act.

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