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Regents of the University of California v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County

April 7, 2010

THE REGENTS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, PETITIONER,
v.
THE SUPERIOR COURT OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY, RESPONDENT;
TAMI WATERS ET AL., REAL PARTIES IN INTEREST.



PETITION for writ of mandate. Carolyn B. Kuhl, Judge. Petition granted with directions. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BC311865).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kitching, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiffs Chiquita Waters, Tami Waters, and Victor Waters are the children of Ruth Waters, who enrolled in the UCLA Willed Body Program in 1970 and whose body was donated to that program upon her death in 2001. Plaintiffs sued the Regents of the University of California (the Regents) for negligence because of alleged wrongdoing and mishandling of donated bodies by the UCLA Willed Body Program.

Based on the recent California Supreme Court case of Conroy v. Regents of University of California (2009) 45 Cal.4th 1244 (Conroy), we find that the document of gift executed by Ruth Waters gave UCLA the right to use her body for teaching purposes, scientific research, "or such purposes as [UCLA] shall in [its] sole discretion deem advisable." That document of gift contained no provision regarding disposition of her body or remains, and representations made by the UCLA Willed Body Program to plaintiffs did not create additional duties owed to them. Under Conroy, execution of a document of gift causes the statutory right to control disposition of a donor's remains to pass to the donee (here the UCLA Willed Body Program) upon the donor's death. The donee becomes the statutory right holder and has the exclusive right to control disposition of the decedent donor's remains. (Id. at p. 1255.) In addition, under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA) (Health & Saf. Code, § 7150*fn1 et seq.), the donee's rights created by an anatomical gift are superior to the rights of others, and family members, such as plaintiffs, do not have the right to alter terms of the written donation agreement executed by the donor. Because Ruth Waters's donation was "irrevocable" upon her death, plaintiffs could not enter into an agreement with UCLA regarding Ruth Waters's body, and representations UCLA made to plaintiffs did not create a duty to them.

The Regents petition for a writ of mandate directing the trial court to set aside its order denying the Regents' motion for summary judgment. The trial court denied the Regents' motion, but ordered that the Regents' petition for writ be certified to this court on several issues, which included whether a willed body program owed duties to donors' family members based on the UAGA, and specifically, whether a claim could be stated for negligence based on the willed body program's representations and information communicated to the donor's family members, either before or after a donation.

We conclude that the absence of a duty owed by defendant to plaintiffs requires the grant of summary adjudication as to the negligence cause of action. We grant the petition and order a writ of mandate to issue directing the trial court to set aside its order denying the Regents' motion for summary judgment as to plaintiffs Chiquita Waters, Tami Waters, and Victor Waters, and to enter an order granting the Regents' motion for summary adjudication as to the negligence cause of action.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Ruth Waters, the mother of plaintiffs Chiquita, Tami, and Victor Waters*fn2 (sometimes the Waters plaintiffs), had worked on cadavers when she attended nursing school. She told Chiquita and Victor that working on cadavers had been of enormous benefit in her training to be a nurse, and that it was important for her to donate her body to medical science. Ruth Waters told Chiquita, Victor, and the rest of her family of her intent to donate her body, told them when she had enrolled, and was very clear with respect to her intent to donate.

Ruth Waters executed a donation agreement on October 3, 1970, which stated: "I hereby state that it is my wish to donate my body to the Department of Anatomy, School of Medicine, of the University of California at Los Angeles, immediately following my death, for teaching purposes, scientific research, or such purposes as the said University or its authorized representative shall in their sole discretion deem advisable. My body, when delivered to UCLA, should be unembalmed and unautopsied and intact." Tami testified in her declaration that her mother's expectation was always that her donated body would be used only in the school of medicine, and that her mother wanted it used only for student research. Chiquita also testified that it was her mother's impression that only UCLA staff and medical students would use the donated body.

Plaintiffs did not assist or facilitate Ruth Waters's donation, obtain forms for her to sign, or object to her donation. Ruth Waters never expressed any change of heart or mind about her decision to donate her body and it remained her intent to donate until she died.

Plaintiffs stated that UCLA represented to Ruth Waters that only UCLA medical staff and students would have access to donated remains; that after studies were completed, remains were individually cremated; and that cremated remains were scattered at El Toro Memorial park, at a cemetery, or at sea, or were returned to the family. Plaintiffs stated that these representations were made to donors in material donors received from UCLA and were asked to share with family members, including the documents entitled "The Gift of Knowledge," "General Information," and "Frequently Asked Questions."

UCLA instructed donors to inform family members of the donation request and the donor's wishes. One instruction stated: "Tell your family or intimates that should your death occur, the Department of Anatomy is to be called promptly, day or night and including holidays. We will arrange to have the body picked up and brought to the University." Another instruction stated: "Retain the other copy of the Will Form with your personal papers. Inform your family, and attorney and/or physician of this bequest, and be sure they are familiar with the list of instructions."

In another document provided to donors, UCLA stated: "Survivors will derive comfort from the knowledge that dignity and respect for those who have donated their bodies is maintained at all times. The indispensable contribution that participants in the Willed Body Program have made is fully recognized. Only medical faculty, students, staff, or students in health-related professions are authorized to have access to donated remains. [¶] . . . [¶] Routinely after use, the remains are cremated and scattered in a rose garden at El Toro Memorial Park, Lake Forest, California."

Literature UCLA provided to donors stated: "Does the University offer payment for a donated body? Never. State law prohibits the sale of bodies or body parts."

Victor, Tami, and Chiquita had no discussions with UCLA about the donation before Ruth Waters's death. Before her mother's death, Tami received no information from UCLA about the Willed Body Program, and did not see "The Gift of Knowledge" or "Frequently Asked Questions." Ruth showed her donation documents to Chiquita, but Chiquita did not read them before Ruth's death. Chiquita did recall reading the "Instruction for How to Will One's Body" before Ruth's death. In the late 1990's, Chiquita looked up the UCLA Willed Body Program on the internet, where she read about the program and read that donated bodies were for the use of medical staff, students, and faculty. She recalled nothing else she learned from the internet about the Program. Victor never saw any document of gift or any documents the donor may have had regarding the donation, except that he had glanced at a donor card that went with his mother's driver's license. He did not obtain any information from UCLA about the Willed Body Program before his mother's death.

Ruth Waters died on July 14, 2001, at age 71. A coordinator at the hospital where Ruth Waters died made arrangements to transport the body to UCLA.

After Ruth Waters's death, Tami received a thank-you letter informing her that after study of her mother's donated body was completed, it would be cremated and her mother's cremated remains would be scattered at El Toro Memorial Park. A year after her mother's death, Tami telephoned UCLA because she had received no information about what had happened. She was told UCLA was still using the remains and they might use them for up to three years. Based on the letter she received from UCLA and her telephone conversation with a representative of UCLA, Tami expected that she would be notified upon final disposition of her mother's remains. Based on what Tami was told, Chiquita also expected her mother's remains would be cremated and scattered at El Toro Memorial Park. Tami told Victor that UCLA promised Ruth Waters's cremains*fn3 would be scattered at El Toro Memorial Park. The document known as "Application and Permit for Disposition of Human Remains" represents that Ruth Waters's body was cremated on July 3, 2002, contradicting the information that UCLA gave to Tami in her July 14, 2002, phone conversation with the UCLA representative.

Tami first learned of alleged wrongdoing at the UCLA Willed Body Program from Chiquita, who learned of those allegations from a television news report in 2004, when she saw Earnest Nelson and Henry Reid*fn4 being arrested. Chiquita received a letter in April 2004 from the Vice Chancellor of Medical Research regarding allegations of misuse of donated remains. Victor first learned of those allegations from media reports in late 2003 or early 2004.

Plaintiffs instituted this action against the Regents and against three corporate entities which were alleged to have improperly purchased donated tissue from UCLA. Plaintiffs Tami, Chiquita, and Victor Waters consented to and adopted the third amended master complaint for negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress filed by other plaintiffs.

The third amended master complaint alleged that since 1997, Harry Reid, Director of the Willed Body Program, and other employees engaged in improper sale of donated bodies and body parts for profit to defendants Johnson & Johnson, Depuy Mitek, Inc. (Mitek), and NuVasive, Inc.

The complaint alleged that in 2003, the California Department of Health Services determined that NuVasive was receiving cadaveric material from UCLA's Willed Body Program. On March 7 and 8, 2004, Reid and Nelson were arrested on charges stemming from sale of bodies and body parts from the UCLA Willed Body Program. By court order, the UCLA Willed Body Program was shut down. UCLA issued statements apologizing for causing pain and suffering to donors' family members.

The negligence cause of action alleged that UCLA employees induced decedents to will their bodies to UCLA for medical and scientific purposes, and undertook the duty to handle and dispose of decedents' remains in a manner that would not shock plaintiffs' sensibilities. The complaint alleged that UCLA promised decedents and represented to plaintiffs that decedents' bodies would be handled and disposed of in a proper, dignified manner or that decedents' ashes would be scattered in a rose garden, and that decedents' bodies and body parts would not and could not be sold.

The negligence cause of action alleged that UCLA relied on the plaintiffs to read documents UCLA provided to the donor, to notify UCLA of decedents' death, to refrain from having decedents' bodies autopsied or embalmed or otherwise disposing of decedents' bodies, and to arrange for UCLA to pick up decedents' bodies. The complaint alleged that UCLA created a relationship between itself and plaintiffs by instructing donors to inform relatives of their donation of remains to the Willed Body Program, by having survivors carry out donors' intentions, and by making public statements that decedents' bodies would be treated and disposed of properly. The complaint alleged that the Regents owed plaintiffs the duty to handle decedents' bodies according to cremation and funeral industry standards, to ensure decedents' remains would not be sold, and to act with ordinary care regarding use and ...


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