Summary of Moore v. Regents of the Univ. of CA, Supreme Court of CA (1990)
Parties: PL is the patient who is seeking relief; DF’s are the doctors and to the regents of the University.
Cause of action/remedy sought: PL seeks damages on several criminal and civil actions, most notably conversion of his cells.
Procedural History: Trial court sustained all of DF’s demurrers. Court of appeal reversed, finding that PL did sustain a proper cause of action.
Facts: PL was treated by DF’s, who notified him he had life-threatening leukemia, and that he’d need his spleen removed. Upon doing this, DF’s did tell PL they would use his tissue for cell research, but they didn’t tell him how much the tissue research would reap for Df’s, or even that they were commercially interested in it. Hundreds of thousands of dollars had been paid to people under such circumstances in the 1980s; potential from PL’s cell line products is expected to run into the billions of dollars.
Issue(s): Under property law, does a PL state a cause of action against his physician and other DF’s for using his cells in potentially lucrative medical research without his permission?
Holding: Yes. “The complaint states a cause of action for breach of physician’s disclosure obligations, but not for conversion….”
Court’s Rationale/Reasoning: The breach of physician duty and fiduciary duty are a slam dunk. The repeated allegations that DF’s never disclosed the extent of their research was enough to sustain those causes of action.
As to conversion, the cause of action under PL’s would stretch the fabric of tort law under theory of conversion. Thus the court believes there is no cause of action under this theory. For conversion, PL needed to establish that there was an actual interference with his ownership right or to his right of possession. Since PL did not expect to retain possession of his cells, in order for this cause of action to fly he would have needed to prove that he had at the very least an ownership interest in them. However, CA case law does not support this premise, CA statutory law limits continuing interest in cell tissue once donated, and the research was the University’s, not PL’s.
Personal likeness is one thing, but there is no conversion cause of action on this basis in property law, as there are not in tort law either (Prosser cited). Additionally, the research here is for a part of the cell structure which is in every human being, and is the exact same thing in all human beings. Further, if every patient had a continuing interest in their cellular property, the doors to potential litigation could be opened wide, for there is a certain level of impracticability to PL’s argument. Also, CA Health law says nothing of the continuing interest one may have in their cell tissue.
This issue is better resolved in a legislative setting, where more testimony and deliberation can be taken up regarding this matter. The balancing test of policy outweighs the other side of extending the tort. Human research could be hindered significantly.
Rule: To establish a conversion, plaintiff must establish an actual interference with his ownership or right of possession. Where plaintiff neither has title to the property alleged to have been converted, nor possession thereof, he cannot maintain an action for conversion.
Did court avoid issues?: No.
Dicta: The issue of conversion of a person’s cell tissue is one of first impression to this court’s knowledge.
Dissents: If the rules of property are interpreted as they should be, in a broad manner, a cause of action for conversion can indeed be brought. Property is referred to as “a bundle of rights.” Those rights here should be read to include PL’s ability to market himself, his tissue, to other people once he was properly informed of the value of his cells. Therefore, conversion should be extended, so as to include tissue, as it will promote fairness and prevent unjust enrichment on the part of doctors.
Concurrences: This is an issue for the legislature. This court is not prepared to handle the possibility of opening a Pandora’s box to a black market of body parts.