Moore v. Regents of the University of California – Case Brief Summary

Summary of Moore v. Regents of the University of California, 51 Cal. 3d 120, 271 Cal. Rptr. 146, 793 P.2d 479, cert. denied 499 U.S. 936 (1991).

Facts

Moore (P) was treated for hairy cell leukemia by Golde (D) at UCLA Medical Center. Test results revealed that Moore’s cells would be useful for genetic research and Golde removed blood, bone marrow, Moore’s spleen, and other tissues. Golde did not inform Moore of his plans to use the cells for research.

After Moore underwent surgery Golde falsely told him that he needed follow up treatment and further tests which must be conducted at the UCLA Medical Center. Golde took blood and tissue samples from Moore on several occasions over a seven year period and retained Moore’s spleen for research without Moore’s knowledge or consent.

Golde patented a cell line using Moore’s cells. The defendants received substantial royalties from licensing the technology including cash and stock options. Moore learned of defendants’ activities and sued in state court on thirteen counts including a claim for conversion, claiming that his blood and tissues and the cell line developed from them were his tangible personal property. The trial court sustained the defendants’ demurrer on the conversion claim and dismissed the case on the grounds that all of the remaining claims were subordinate to the conversion claim. On appeal, the Court of Appeal reversed, holding that informed consent was inadequate and concluding that there were no grounds establishing that Moore had abandoned or consented to the use of his tissue for research unrelated to his treatment. Golde and the Regents of the University of California appealed.

Issues

  1. Does a claim for conversion lie for the use of a plaintiff’s bodily tissue in medical research without his knowledge or consent?
  2. Under the duty to obtain informed consent, must a doctor disclose his intent in using a patient for research and economic gain?

Holding and Rule (Panelli)

  1. No. A claim for conversion does not lie for the use of a plaintiff’s bodily tissue in medical research without his knowledge or consent.
  2. Yes. Under the duty to obtain informed consent, a doctor must disclose his intent in using a patient for research and economic gain.

Rule for Conversion

To establish 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.

The court held that since the plaintiff did not expect to retain possession of his cells, to sue for their conversion he must have retained an ownership interest in them. There are several reasons to doubt that he retained such interest. First, there is no precedent in support of plaintiff’s claim. Second, California statutes drastically limit any continuing interest of a patient in excised cells by requiring that they be destroyed after use. Third, the subject matter of the patent (i.e. the patented cell line and the technology and products derived from it) cannot be Moore’s property.

Moore’s allegations state a cause of action for invading a legally protected interest of his patient. A cause of action can lie under the informed consent doctrine as a breach of the fiduciary duty to disclose material facts, or the lack of informed consent in obtaining consent to conduct medical procedures. A reasonable patient would want to know that his physician’s professional judgment might be impaired by an independent economic interest.

Public Policy

The court stated that it must balance the competing interests in determining whether conversion liability should be extended. Extension of conversion liability would produce great harm to future medical research. The court held that this was an issue better left to the legislative branch.

Disposition

The complaint states a cause of action for breach of the physician’s disclosure obligations, but not for conversion.

Notes

While the patents at issue in this case do not claim DNA sequences specifically, this case is widely cited in the context of legal issues involving DNA and biotechnology and the ethical implications of these new technologies.

See Mohr v. Williams for a law school torts case brief in which the court held that when a patient gives a physician specific consent for an operation, the physician may not perform a different procedure on the patient without consent.


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