Every medical operation, no matter how familiar or routine it may be, carries a level of risk. There is always a chance that an operation will fail to produce its desired result. What’s more, there is always a possibility that a patient will suffer negative consequences from the operation. The case of Hawkins v McGee (1929) is a famous example of a surgical procedure which put the patient in a condition worse than the one he started in. Hawkins v McGee is a cautionary tale for all physicians and future physicians just to show them the bizarre possibilities in their profession.
Hawkins v McGee: The Case
The plaintiff (Hawkins) injured his hand during childhood when he touched a piece of electrical wire. The defendant (McGee) claimed that he could perform surgery on plaintiff’s hand and return it to top condition; specifically, the doctor guaranteed a “100% good hand.”
The defendant used a surgical technique known as “skin grafting” and placed skin taken from the plaintiff’s chest area into the injured hand. The operation failed to fully repair the injured hand. Moreover, the plaintiff’s hand soon started to grow hair! The plaintiff claimed he was entitled to damages for breach of contract; citing additional pain and suffering caused by the operation.
What’s the law say?
In most cases when a contract is breached, the goal is to return the injured party to their former state; whatever position they would have been in had the contract never occurred. In the case of a divorce for instance, an ideal scenario is both parties go their own way, maintain their own income and return to whatever age they would have been at the time of their marriage. Since no one can go back in time, the nearest approximation is used instead. There are a variety of ways to approach this goal.
In this case, the court found the plaintiff entitled to expectation damages as a result of the breach of contract. Expectation damages amount to the difference in value between what the plaintiff received and what the defendant promised to deliver.
Court Rules in Favor of Hawkins
The court (the New Hampshire Supreme Court) ruled in favor of the plaintiff, agreeing expectation damages should be delivered. The plaintiff contracted for a “100% good hand” and received a hand which — was not only still injured — but now grew hair as well.
The plaintiff was owed a sum equal to the difference between what was contracted and what he received. That said, the court did not feel the plaintiff was owed payment for “pain and suffering” as these are normal for such a procedure. Even so, this is a classic case of “overpromising” and “underdelivering.”
Image by Jackson David