Fire Caused by a Medical Device Malfunction Case In California

Temple Community Hospital v. Superior Court (1999) involved a patient who sustained injuries when a surgical instrument allegedly malfunctioned and ignited a fire. Before filing suit, her attorney requested permission to inspect the instrument and other equipment used in the surgery and asked the hospital and physicians to preserve the evidence, but they allegedly refused the request and destroyed the evidence. The patient sued the instrument manufacturer for product liability and other causes of action, and sued the hospital and physicians for malpractice and intentional and negligent spoliation. (Temple Community, supra, 20 Cal. 4th at pp. 466-467.) The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer because there was no evidence that the instrument was defective and the manufacturer had provided adequate warnings regarding its use. (Temple Community, supra, 20 Cal. 4th at pp. 466-467.) After other proceedings not relevant to the issue on review, the Supreme Court granted review to decide whether a tort remedy existed for the intentional spoliation of evidence relevant to a cause of action against another party (third party spoliation). ( Id. at p. 469.) The Temple Community court reiterated the policy considerations expressed in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center v. Superior Court (1998) and emphasized the policy against creating derivative tort remedies for litigation-related misconduct and favoring the resolution of a dispute in a single lawsuit. (Temple Community, supra, 20 Cal. 4th at pp. 469-472.) The court disapproved of a disappointed litigant seeking from a third party the same compensation that it had sought unsuccessfully in the underlying action where the derivative litigation would require a retrial within a trial involving the same evidence presented in the underlying action, and decried the "endless spiral of lawsuits over litigation-related misconduct" that could result if a tort remedy were allowed. (Id. at pp. 472-473.) It noted the potential for premature and meritless claims if the spoliation claim were asserted in the underlying action before the completion of discovery, and the potential for jury confusion and inconsistent results. (Id. at p. 472.) The court noted the probable uncertainty of both the fact of harm arising from spoliation and the element of causation in a substantial proportion of spoliation cases. Without knowing the content and weight of the spoliated evidence, it would be impossible for the jury to meaningfully assess what role the missing evidence would have played in the determination of the underlying action. The jury could only speculate as to what the nature of the spoliated evidence was and what effect it might have had on the outcome of the underlying litigation.' (Cedars-Sinai, supra, 18 Cal. 4th at pp. 13-14.)" (Temple Community, supra, 20 Cal. 4th at p. 474.) The Temple Community court acknowledged that fewer sanctions are available to deter spoliation by third parties or to mitigate its effects, but it concluded that the burdens and costs on litigants, the judicial system, and others would outweigh the benefits of a tort remedy and that the limited remedies available are sufficient. (Temple Community, supra, 20 Cal. 4th at pp. 477-478.) It noted that it would be anomalous to impose liability against third parties for conduct that would not give rise to liability if committed by a party to the underlying action. ( Id. at p. 477.)