Tunkl v. Regents of University of Cal.

Citation383 P.2d 441,32 Cal.Rptr. 33,60 Cal.2d 92,6 A.L.R.3d 693
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Decision Date09 July 1963
Parties, 383 P.2d 441, 6 A.L.R.3d 693 Olga TUNKL, as Executrix of the Estate of Hugo Tunkl, Deceased, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. The REGENTS OF the UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, Defendant and Respondent. L. A. 26984.

Caidin, Bloomgarden & Kalman and Newton Kalman, Beverly Hills, for plaintiff and appellant.

Edward I. Pollock, William Jerome Pollack and Morris L. Marcus, Los Angeles, amici curiae on behalf of plaintiff and appellant.

Belcher, Henize & Fargo, Los Angeles, Leo J. Biegenzahn, West Covina, and William I. Chertok, Los Angeles, for defendant and respondent.

TOBRINER, Justice.

This case concerns the validity of a release from liability for future negligence imposed as a condition for admission to a charitable research hospital. For the reasons we hereinafter specify, we have concluded that an agreement between a hospital and an entering patient affects the public interest and that, in consequence, the exculpatory provision included within it must be invalid under Civil Code section 1668.

Hugo Tunkl Brought this action to recover damages for personal injuries alleged to have resulted from the negligence of two physicians in the employ of the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center, a hospital operated and maintained by the Regents of the University of California as a nonprofit charitable institution. Mr. Tunkl died after suit was brought, and his surviving wife, as executrix, was substituted as plaintiff.

The University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center admitted Tunkl as a patient on June 11, 1956. The Regents maintain the hospital for the primary purpose of aiding and developing a program of research and education in the field of medicine; patients are selected and admitted if the study and treatment of their condition would tend to achieve these purposes. Upon his entry to the hospital, Tunkl signed a document setting forth certain 'Conditions of Admission.' The crucial condition number six reads as follows: 'RELEASE: The hospital is a nonprofit, charitable institution. In consideration of the hospital and allied services to be rendered and the rates charged therefor, the patient or his legal representative agrees to and hereby releases The Regents of the University of California, and the hospital from any and all liability for the negligent or wrongful acts or omissions of its employees, if the hospital has used due care in selecting its employees.'

Plaintiff stipulated that the hospital had Selected its employees with due care. The trial court ordered that the issue of the validity of the exculpatory clause be first submitted to the jury and that, if the jury found that the provision did not bind plaintiff, a second jury try the issue of alleged malpractice. When, on the preliminary issue, the jury returned a verdict sustaining the validity of the executed release, the court entered judgment in favor of the Regents. 1 Plaintiff appeals from the judgment.

We shall first set out the basis for our prime ruling that the exculpatory provision of the hospital's contract fell under the proscription of Civil Code section 1668; we then dispose of two answering arguments of defendant.

We begin with the dictate of the relevant Civil Code section 1668. The section states: 'All contracts which have for their object, directly or indirectly, to exempt anyone from responsibility for his own fraud, or willful injury to the person or property of another, or violation of law, whether willful or negligent, are against the policy of the law.'

The course of section 1668, however, has been a troubled one. Although, as we shall explain, the decisions uniformly uphold its prohibitory impact in one circumstance, the courts' interpretations of it have been diverse. Some of the cases have applied the statute strictly, invalidating any contract for exemption from liability for negligence. The court in England v. Lyon Fireproof Storage Co. (1928) 94 Cal.App.562, 271 P. 532, categorically states, 'The court correctly instructed the jury that The defendant cannot limit its liability against its own negligence by contract, and any contract to that effect would be void." (94 Cal.App. p. 575, 271 P. p. 537.) (To the same effect: Union Constr. Co. v. Western Union Tel. Co. (1912) 163 Cal. 298, 314-315, 125 P. 242.) 2 The recent case of Mills v. Ruppert (1959) 167 Cal.App.2d 58, 62-63, 333 P.2d 818; however, apparently limits '(N)egligent * * * violation of law' exclusively to statutory law. 3 Other cases hold that the statute prohibits the exculpation of gross negligence only; 4 still another case states that the section forbids exemption from active as contrasted with passive negligence. 5

In one respect, as we have said, the decisions are uniform. The cases have consistently held that the exculpatory provision may stand only if it does not involve 'the public interest.' 6 Interestingly enough, this theory found its first expression in a decision which did not expressly refer to section 1668. In Stephens v. Southern Pacific Co. (1895) 109 Cal. 86, 41 P. 783, 29 L.R.A. 751, a railroad company had leased land, which adjoined its depot, to a lessee who had constructed a warehouse upon it. The lessee covenanted that the railroad company would not be responsible for damage from fire 'caused by any * * * means.' (109 Cal. p. 87, 41 P. p. 783.) This exemption, under the court ruling applied to the lessee's damage resulting from the railroad company's carelessly burning dry grass and rubbish. Declaring the contract not 'violative of sound public policy' (109 Cal. p. 89, 41 P. p. 784), the court pointed out '* * * As far as this transaction was concerned, the parties, when contracting, stood upon common ground, and dealt with each other as A. and B. might deal with each other with reference to any private business undertaking. * * *' (109 Cal. p. 88, 41 P. p. 784.) The court concluded 'that the interests of the public in the contract are more sentimental than real' (109 Cal. p. 95, 41 P. p. 786; emphasis added) and that the exculpatory provision was therefore enforceable.

In applying this approach and in manifesting their reaction as to the effect of the exemptive clause upon the public interest, some later courts enforced, and others invalidated such provisions under section 1668. Thus in Nichols v. Hitchcock Motor Co. (1937) 22 Cal.App.2d 151, 159, 70 P.2d 654, 658, the court enforced an exculpatory clause on the ground that 'the public neither had nor could have any interest whatsoever in the subject-matter of the contract, considered either as a whole or as to the incidental covenant in question. The agreement between the parties concerned 'their private affairs' only.' 7

In Barkett v. Brucato (1953) 122 Cal.App.2d 264, 276, 264 P.2d 978, 987, which involved a waiver clause in a private lease, Justice Peters summarizes the previous decisions in this language: 'These cases hold that the matter is simply one of interpreting a contract; that both parties are free to contract; that the relationship of landlord and tenant does not affect the public interest; that such a provision affects only the private affairs of the parties. * * *' (Emphasis added.)

On the other hand, courts struck down exculpatory clauses as contrary to public policy in the case of a contract to transmit a telegraph message (Union Constr. Co. v. Western Union Tel. Co. (1912) 163 Cal. 298, 125 P. 242) and in the instance of a contract of bailment (England v. Lyon Fireproof Storage Co. (1928) 94 Cal.App. 562, 271 P. 532). In Hiroshima v. Bank of Italy (1926) 78 Cal.App. 362, 248 P. 947, the court invalidated an exemption provision in the form used by a payee in directing a bank to stop payment on a check. The court relied in part upon the fact that 'the banking public, as well as the particular individual who may be concerned in the giving of any stop notice, is interested in seeing that the bank is held accountable for the ordinary and regular performance of its duties, and also in seeing that directions in relation to the disposition of funds deposited in the bank are not heedlessly, negligently, and carelessly disobeyed, and money paid out contrary to directions given.' (78 Cal.App. p. 377, 248 P. p. 953.) The opinion in Hiroshima was approved and followed in Grisinger v. Golden State Bank (1928) 92 Cal.App. 443, 268 P. 425. 8

If, then, the exculpatory clause which affects the public interest cannot stand, we must ascertain those factors or characteristics which constitute the public interest. The social forces that have led to such characterization are volatile and dynamic. No definition of the concept of public interest can be contained within the four corners of a formula. The concept, always the subject of great debate, has ranged over the whole course of the common law; rather than attempt to prescribe its nature, we can only designate the situations in which it has been applied. We can determine whether the instant contract does or does not manifest the characteristics which have been held to stamp a contract as one affected with a public interest.

In placing particular contracts within or without the category of those affected with a public interest, the courts have revealed a rough outline of that type of transaction in which exculpatory provisions will be held invalid. Thus the attempted but invalid exemption involves a transaction which exhibits some or all of the following characteristics. It concerns a business of a type generally thought suitable for public regulation. 9 The party seeking exculpation is engaged in performing a service of great importance to the public, 10 which is often a matter of practical necessity for some members of the public. 11 The party holds himself out as willing to perform this service for any member of the public who seeks it, or at least for any member coming within certain established...

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