25 Cal.2d 486 (1944)

This case presents the special problem of multiple potential tortfeasors.

While plaintiff was under the care of defendant physicians and nurses for an appendectomy, he suffered injury to his shoulder.  Although it seemed likely that his injury resulted from the negligence of one or more of his caretakers, he could not prove any direct evidence that the act of any particular defendant (or any particular instrumentality) was responsible.

Because there was a division of responsibility (as well as time, space, and instrumentalities) among defendants from the operation to the recovery room, one could not say that, as to any one defendant, it was more likely than not that plaintiff’s injury was caused by him or her.

For several reasons, however, the court stretched the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur to allow plaintiff to make out a prima facie case.  Those reasons included:

  • the need to compensate an innocent victim who had submitted himself totally to the care of the defendants;
  • the fiduciary relationship between defendants and plaintiff; and
  • the judgment that, as between the parties, defendants should bear the risk of unexplained injuries because they were in a better position to avoid the injuries, to spread the cost, and to have access to information about its causes.

The last point was especially important.  There was a sense in the case that at least some of the defendants knew who was responsible and were deploying a “conspiracy of silence” to protect each other.  Application of res ipsa loquitur in such circumstances gave plaintiff an added ability to “smoke out” the facts.

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