Moore v. Regents of the University of California
793 P.2d 479, cert. denied 499 U.S. 936 (1991)

  • Moore had leukemia. He was treated at a UC hospital. Moore consented to treatment, but the UC researchers took tissue samples for research purposes.
    • UC made a cell line from Moore’s cell and obtained a patent on it.
      • Turns out, the cell line was tremendously valuable for cancer research (possibly worth billions!).
  • Moore sued UC for conversion.
    • Conversion is the common law term for when someone takes your property and won’t give it back.
    • He also sued for a bunch of other things such as fraud and infliction of emotional distress.
    • UC argued that the tissue samples were abandoned property, and Moore no longer had any claim to them.
  • The Trial Court found for UC. Moore appealed.
  • The Appellate Court reversed. UC appealed.
    • The Appellate Court found that there was, “no legal authority public policy, or known fact of biological science which compel a conclusion that this plaintiff cannot have a sufficient legal interest in his own bodily tissues amounting to personal property.”
    • The Court found that it was up to a jury to decide if the tissue samples were improperly converted or if they were abandoned property.
  • The California Supreme Court reversed and found for UC.
    • The California Supreme Court found that Moore did not have a cause of action for conversion, but he did have a cause of action for breach of his physician’s disclosure obligations.
    • The Court found that if researchers had to investigate if every cell line they were using came from a willing donor it would hurt socially important medical research.
      • Since conversion is a strict liability tort, anyone using the cell line could be held liable, even if they didn’t know where the cells came from originally. That would discourage researchers from doing medical research.
    • The Court found that Moore’s cells are similar to a donated organ. California statutes don’t consider personal property interests for donated organs (for example, you can’t sell them.)
      • On the other hand, in a dissent, it was argued that while you can’t sell organs for transplant, you can sell tissue samples for education or research purposes.
    • The Court found that Moore couldn’t possibly have a right to the UC patent. You cannot patent natural, living materials, such as Moore’s cells. What UC patented was a cell line, which they had to tinker with to get to work. It was the tinkering that resulted in the patent, not Moore’s cells.
    • The Court did find that the UC doctors had a duty to disclose research and economic interests that could affect their decision making process.
      • Moore had a right to consent to medical treatment, and had a right to know if samples were being taken for his benefit or to harvest cells for research purposes.
      • In a dissent, it was argued that this is not a good compromise. It will be difficult for Moore to recover at all, and he certainly won’t get anywhere near the amount the UC will earn off the patent.
  • One would certainly have to agree that Moore had a property interest in his cells while they were in his body. If so, how did he lose the property interest when they were removed? And how did UC acquire their property interest if they didn’t get it from Moore?
    • If a thief had entered the UC lab and stolen Moore’s cells, could UC have sued for conversion?
  • In a dissent, it was argued that, even if Moore could not sell his tissues, he still retained a property interest in them. For example, if you have a hunting license, you are forbidden from selling the dead animals, but you still ‘own’ them.
    • Property that cannot be legally sold but can be given away is called market-inalienable.