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Hawkins v. McGee: The Famous Hairy Hand Case from the Paper Chase

posted Aug 30, 2010, 11:24 AM by Michael Eber   [ updated Aug 26, 2011, 8:45 AM ]
For fans of the movie The Paper Chase, you were probably waiting to cover Hawkins v. McGee, 145 A. 641 (N.H. 1929). Sadly, this case is not in our textbook.

Try thinking about offer and acceptance between the patient and surgeon in this case.


The operation in question consisted in the removal of a considerable quantity of scar tissue from the palm of the plaintiff's right hand and the grafting of skin taken from the plaintiff's chest in place thereof. The scar tissue was the result of a severe burn caused by contact with an electric wire, which the plaintiff received about nine years before the time of the transactions here involved. There was evidence to the effect that before the operation was performed the plaintiff and his father went to the defendant's office, and that the defendant, in answer to the question, “How long will the boy be in the hospital?” replied, “Three or four days, not over four; then the boy can go home and it will be just a few days when he will go back to work with a *643 good hand.” Clearly this and other testimony to the same effect would not justify a finding that the doctor contracted to complete the hospital treatment in three or four days or that the plaintiff would be able to go back to work within a few days thereafter. The above statements could only be construed as expressions of opinion or predictions as to the probable duration of the treatment and plaintiff's resulting disability, and the fact that these estimates were exceeded would impose no contractual liability upon the defendant. The only substantial basis for the plaintiff's claim is the testimony that the defendant also said before the operation was decided upon, “I will guarantee to make the hand a hundred per cent perfect hand or a hundred per cent good hand.” The plaintiff was present when these words were alleged to have been spoken, and, if they are to be taken at their face value, it seems obvious that proof of their utterance would establish the giving of a warranty in accordance with his contention.

The defendant argues, however, that, even if these words were uttered by him, no reasonable man would understand that they were used with the intention of entering “into any contractual relation whatever,” and that they could reasonably be understood only “as his expression in strong language that he believed and expected that as a result of the operation he would give the plaintiff a very good hand.” It may be conceded, as the defendant contends, that, before the question of the making of a contract should be submitted to a jury, there is a preliminary question of law for the trial court to pass upon, i. e. “whether the words could possibly have the meaning imputed to them by the party who founds his case upon a certain interpretation,” but it cannot be held that the trial court decided this question erroneously in the present case. It is unnecessary to determine at this time whether the argument of the defendant, based upon “common knowledge of the uncertainty which attends all surgical operations,” and the improbability that a surgeon would ever contract to make a damaged part of the human body “one hundred per cent perfect,” would, in the absence of countervailing considerations, be regarded as conclusive, for there were other factors in the present case which tended to support the contention of the plaintiff. There was evidence that the defendant repeatedly solicited from the plaintiff's father the opportunity to perform this operation, and the theory was advanced by plaintiff's counsel in cross-examination of defendant that he sought an opportunity to “experiment on skin grafting,” in which he had had little previous experience. If the jury accepted this part of plaintiff's contention, there would be a reasonable basis for the further conclusion that, if defendant spoke the words attributed to him, he did so with the intention that they should be accepted at their face value, as an inducement for the granting of consent to the operation by the plaintiff and his father, and there was ample evidence that they were so accepted by them. The question of the making of the alleged contract was properly submitted to the jury.

Hawkins v. McGee, 84 N.H. 114, 146 A. 641, 642-43 (1929)