Ybarra v. Spangard (California, 1944)

Procedural History: The plaintiff files an action for damages inflicted during the course of surgical operation. The trial court entered judgments of nonsuit to all defendants and plaintiff appealed.

Facts: Ybarra consulted Dr. Tilley, who diagnosed him with appendicitis and made arrangements for an appendectomy to be performed by Dr. Spangard at a hospital owned and operated by Dr. Swift. Plaintiff was given a hypodermic injection and was wheeled to an operating room by Nurse Gisler, an employee of Dr. Swift. Dr. Reser, the anesthetist, was employed by Dr. Swift also and adjusted plaintiff for the operation, pulling his body to the head of the operating table and laying him between two hard objects at the top of his shoulders. After he woke up in his hospital room, a sharp pain existed halfway between the neck and the right shoulder and the pain continues and worsened even after treatments. He developed paralysis and atrophy of the muscles surrounding his shoulder. He consulted another doctor who confirmed diminished sensation below the shoulder and that the injury was likely caused by a trauma injury by pressure or strain.

Issue: Although Ybarra does not know whose negligence caused his injury, is he entitled to recover for that injury under a res ipsa evidentiary standard?

Rules: 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.

Application: Because it is unjust for the court to force the unconscious plaintiff to produce evidence regarding which defendant committed negligence upon him, it is possible to use the evidentiary doctrine of res ipsa loquitur which shifts the burden of proof to each defendant to claim their non-negligence.

Conclusion: The court recognized that res ipsa would not strictly apply in this case and so established a new legal doctrine that would provide a shift of the burden of proof to each defendant for each to dissuade the jury of his or her negligence.

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