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Schloendorff v. The Society of the New York Hospital (105 N.E. 92) 1914
Court of Appeals of New York
Opinion by Justice Cardozo. In the year 1771, by royal charter of George III., the Society of the New York Hospital was organized for the care and healing of the sick. During the century and more which has since passed, it has devoted itself to that high task. It has no capital stock; it does not distribute profits; and its physicians and surgeons, both the visiting and the resident staff, serve it without pay. Those who seek it in search of health, are charged nothing, if they are needy, either for board or for treatment. The well-to-do are required by its by-laws to pay $ 7 a week for board, an amount insufficient to cover the per capita cost of maintenance. Whatever income is thus received, is added to the income derived from the hospital's foundation, and helps to make it possible for the work to go on. The purpose is not profit, but charity, and the incidental revenue does not change the defendant's standing as a charitable institution.
To this hospital the plaintiff came in January, 1908. She was suffering from some disorder of the stomach. She asked the superintendent or one of his assistants what the charge would be and was told that it would be $ 7 a week. She became an inmate of the hospital, and after some weeks of treatment the house physician, Dr. Bartlett, discovered a lump, which proved to be a fibroid tumor. He consulted the visiting surgeon, Dr. Stimson, who advised an operation. The plaintiff's testimony is that the character of the lump could not, so the physicians informed her, be determined without an ether examination. She consented to such an examination, but notified Dr. Bartlett, as she says, that there must be no operation. She was taken at night from the medical to the surgical ward and prepared for an operation by a nurse. On the following day ether was administered, and while she was unconscious a tumor was removed. Her testimony is that this was done without her consent or knowledge. She is contradicted both by Dr. Stimson and by Dr. Bartlett, as well as by many of the attendant nurses. For the purpose of this appeal, however, since a verdict was directed in favor of the defendant, her narrative, even if improbable, must be taken as true. Following the operation, and, according to the testimony of her witnesses, because of it, gangrene developed in her left arm; some of her fingers had to be amputated; and her sufferings were intense. She now seeks to charge the hospital with liability for the wrong.
Certain principles of law governing the rights and duties of hospitals when maintained as charitable institutions have, after much discussion, become no longer doubtful. It is the settled rule that such a hospital is not liable for the negligence of its physicians and nurses in the treatment of patients. This exemption has been placed upon two grounds. The first is that of implied waiver. It is said that one who accepts the benefit of a charity enters into a relation which exempts one's benefactor from liability for the negligence of his servants in administering the charity. The hospital remains exempt though the patient makes some payment to help defray the cost of board. Such a payment is regarded as a contribution to the income of the hospital to be devoted, like its other funds, to the maintenance of the charity. The second ground of the exemption is the relation subsisting between a hospital and the physicians who serve it. It is said that this relation is not one of master and servant, but that the physician occupies the position, so to speak, of an independent contractor, following a separate calling, liable, of course, for his own wrongs to the patient whom he undertakes to serve, but involving the hospital in no liability if due care has been taken in his selection. On one or the other, and often on both of these grounds, a hospital has been held immune from liability to patients for the malpractice of its physicians. The reasons that have led to the adoption of this rule are, of course, inapplicable where the wrong is committed by a servant of the hospital and the sufferer is not a patient. It is, therefore, also a settled rule that a hospital is liable to strangers, i. e., to persons other than patients, for the torts of its employees committed within the line of their employment.
In the case at hand, the wrong complained of is not merely negligence. It is trespass. Every human being of adult years and sound mind has a right to determine what shall be done with his own body; and a surgeon who performs an operation without his patient's consent, commits an assault, for which he is liable in damages. This is true except in cases of emergency where the patient is unconscious and where it is necessary to operate before consent can be obtained. The fact that the wrong complained of here is trespass rather than negligence, distinguishes this case from most of the cases that have preceded it. In such circumstances the hospital's exemption from liability can hardly rest upon implied waiver. Relatively to this transaction, the plaintiff was a stranger. She had never consented to become a patient for any purpose other than an examination under ether. She had never waived the right to recover damages for any wrong resulting from this operation, for she had forbidden the operationů.Return to contents