Law School Case Brief
Ybarra v. Spangard - 25 Cal. 2d 486, 154 P.2d 687 (1944)
The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur has three conditions: (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. It is applied in a wide variety of situations, including cases of medical or dental treatment and hospital care.
Plaintiff patient Ybarra filed suit for malpractice and damages, arguing that res ipsa loquitur placed an inference of negligence on defendant doctors during the course of surgery. Defendant surgeon Spangard performed an appendectomy at a hospital owned by defendant doctor Swift. During the operation, various medical professionals were involved. One defendant doctor adjusted plaintiff's position for the operation. Plaintiff testified that prior to the operation he had never had any pain in, or injury to, his right arm or shoulder, but that when he awakened he felt a sharp pain about half way between the neck and the point of the right shoulder. The pain continued. In the opinion of non-party physicians, plaintiff's condition was due to trauma or injury by pressure or strain, applied between his right shoulder and neck. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County issued a judgment of nonsuit. Appellant plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court of California. Plaintiff's theory is that the evidence presented a proper case for the application of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur and that the inference of negligence arising therefrom made the granting of a nonsuit improper. Defendants argued that where there are several defendants, and there is a division of responsibility in the use of an instrumentality causing the injury, and the injury might have resulted from the separate act of either one of two or more persons, the rule of res ipsa loquitur cannot be invoked against any one of them.
Was the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applicable in this case, in which plaintiff patient contended injuries resulted during the course of surgery performed by several defendant doctors?
Reversing the judgment of nonsuit and deciding in favor of appellant plaintiff patient Ybarra, the Supreme Court of California held that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applied in this case to defendant doctors. he Court held that 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. Every defendant in whose custody plaintiff was placed had to exercise care that no unnecessary harm came to him.
The Court ruled that where a plaintiff receives unusual injuries while unconscious and in the course of medical 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.
The Court explained that the test of actual exclusive control of an instrumentality has not been strictly followed, and exceptions have been recognized where the purpose of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur would otherwise be defeated. Thus, the test is one of right of control rather than actual control. Here, there is no problem of negligence in treatment, but of distinct injury to a healthy part of the body not the subject of treatment, nor within the area covered by the operation. The decisions in California make it clear that such circumstances raise the inference of negligence, and call upon the defendant to explain the unusual result.
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