Gates v. Jensen

Decision Date31 May 1979
Docket NumberNo. 45727,45727
Citation595 P.2d 919,92 Wn.2d 246
PartiesG. Walter GATES and Elisabeth Gates, husband and wife of the marital community composed thereof, Petitioners, v. Carl D. JENSEN, M.D., and his wife, James L. Hargiss, M.D., and his wife, Wood Lyda, M.D., and his wife, Walter C. Peterson, M.D., and his wife, Charles E. Boyland, M.D., and his wife, and Murray A. Johnstone, M.D., and his wife, and the marital communities composed thereof, and Eye Clinic of Seattle, Inc., P.S., a professional service corporation, Respondents.
CourtWashington Supreme Court

Helsell, Fetterman, Martin, Todd & Hokanson, Richard S. White, Seattle, for petitioners.

Williams, Lanza, Kastner & Gibbs, Henry E. Kastner, Joel D. Cunningham, Seattle, for respondents.

Daniel F. Sullivan, Donovan R. Flora, Seattle, for amicus.

HOROWITZ, Justice.

Petitioners in this suit for malpractice raise two important questions regarding a physician's duties of care and disclosure to a patient, and the rules of law which apply when a physician allegedly breaches that duty. The first question is whether the doctrine of informed consent requires a physician to inform a patient of a bodily abnormality discovered during a routine examination and of diagnostic procedures which may be taken to determine the significance of that abnormality. The second question raised is whether the rule of Helling v. Carey, 83 Wash.2d 514, 519 P.2d 981 (1974), that reasonable prudence may require a standard of care higher than that exercised by the relevant professional group, prevails even after the enactment of RCW 4.24.290. We answer both these questions affirmatively, reverse the trial court, and remand for a new trial.

In May 1972 petitioner Elisabeth Gates consulted Dr. James Hargiss, an ophthalmologist with the respondent Eye Clinic of Seattle. She complained of difficulty in focusing, blurring, and gaps in her vision. Mrs. Gates was 54 years old at the time and had a severe myopia which doubled her risk of glaucoma. Dr. Hargiss took eye pressure readings with a Schiotz tonometer and found the pressure in each eye registered 23.8 on the Goldman scale. This reading indicated Mrs. Gates was in the borderline area for glaucoma. Dr. Hargiss then examined Mrs. Gates' optic nerves with a direct ophthalmoscope to determine whether the discs, or surfaces, of the nerves showed the exacerbated "cupping" which is characteristic of glaucoma. There was evidence at trial that observation of the nerve discs in Mrs. Gates' case was particularly difficult with the direct ophthalmoscope when the pupils were not dilated. Nonetheless Dr. Hargiss did not dilate Mrs. Gates' pupils. He could see no evidence of abnormality and made no further tests for glaucoma. In response to Mrs. Gates' inquiry about the pressure test, he said he had checked for glaucoma but found everything all right. He diagnosed her problem as difficulties with the contact lenses she wore and treated her accordingly.

The significant facts in this case are that Dr. Hargiss neither told Mrs. Gates he had found high pressure in both eyes which put her in a borderline glaucoma area, nor that her risk of glaucoma was increased considerably by this high pressure and her myopia. Furthermore, Dr. Hargiss had available to him two additional diagnostic tests for glaucoma which are simple, inexpensive, and risk free. The first was to use the standard drops for dilating the pupils to obtain a better view of the optic nerve discs. The second was to have Mrs. Gates take a visual field examination to determine whether she had suffered any loss in her field of vision. Dr. Hargiss did not tell Mrs. Gates of the existence of these simple procedures, and he did not administer the tests.

Over the next 2 years Mrs. Gates revisited the clinic 12 times complaining of blurring, fog, and gaps in her vision, as well as loss in visual acuity. Shortly after her first visit Dr. Hargiss made another pressure reading and found pressures in both eyes to be within the high range of normal. There was evidence at trial that in the early stages of glaucoma pressures can vary drastically from normal to positive glaucoma readings within a 24-hour period. Dr. Hargiss concluded, however, that the first high readings were misleading because they were caused by Mrs. Gates' tension at being subjected to the pressure testing procedure, which requires placing and instrument directly on the eye. Adhering to Dr. Hargiss' initial diagnosis of difficulty adjusting to contact lenses, the doctors at the clinic did not dilate the pupils nor administer a visual field test over the next 2 years. Mrs. Gates' symptoms gradually worsened.

In April 1974 doctors at the clinic diagnosed Mrs. Gates as having open angle glaucoma. This diagnosis was confirmed by other specialists outside the clinic. The clinic's own glaucoma expert suggested that part of Mrs. Gates' vision loss was attributable to an acute nerve disease which is untreatable and could not have been detected before it occurred. 1 This finding was made at a time when Mrs. Gates' glaucoma had already been diagnosed and the clinic's expert had access to the records indicating that dilation and field examinations had not been previously made. The diagnosis of nerve disease was contested at trial by other expert testimony. By the time Mrs. Gates' glaucoma was discovered her vision had deteriorated from near 20/20 with glasses to 20/200 with glasses. Mrs. Gates is now functionally blind.

At trial petitioners requested instructions on the doctrine of informed consent and the reasonable prudence rule established by this court in Helling v. Carey, supra. The court refused both instructions. The jury reached a verdict for the respondent doctors and the court entered judgment accordingly. The Court of Appeals considered five assignments of error and affirmed the judgment for respondents. We granted the petition for review of the trial court's refusal to give the two requested instructions.

We reverse.

Informed Consent

Petitioners' proposed Supplemental Instruction No. 2 2 is based on the evidence presented at trial that the doctors at the Eye Clinic failed to inform Mrs. Gates that she had high pressures in her eyes, that she was in a high risk group for glaucoma, or that there were alternative diagnostic procedures available to determine conclusively whether she had glaucoma. It is petitioners' contention that the doctors had a duty to tell her these facts so she could make an informed choice about treatments she would undergo, and that if she had been informed of these facts she would have requested the additional tests and glaucoma would have been discovered. There was evidence at trial that if glaucoma had been detected when Mrs. Gates first visited the Eye Clinic, the condition could have been stabilized and a great part of her vision saved. It is respondents' contention, however, that the doctrine of informed consent does not apply to questions of appropriate diagnostic procedures and the requested instruction was properly rejected. We do not agree.

In a thorough and comprehensive statement of the doctrine of informed consent which was adopted by this court, the Court of Appeals held that a physician has a fiduciary duty to inform a patient of abnormalities in his or her body. Miller v. Kennedy, 11 Wash.App. 272, 282, 522 P.2d 852 (1974), Affirmed 85 Wash.2d 151, 530 P.2d 334 (1975). The basis of this duty is that the patient has a right to know the material facts concerning the condition of his or her body, and any risks presented by that condition, so that an informed choice may be made regarding the course which the patient's medical care will take. The patient's right to know is not confined to the choice of treatment once a disease is present and has been conclusively diagnosed. Important decisions must frequently be made in many non-treatment situations in which medical care is given, including procedures leading to a diagnosis, as in this case. These decisions must all be taken with the full knowledge and participation of the patient. The physician's duty is to tell the patient what he or she needs to know in order to make them. The existence of an abnormal condition in one's body, the presence of a high risk of disease, and the existence of alternative diagnostic procedures to conclusively determine the presence or absence of that disease are all facts which a patient must know in order to make an informed decision on the course which future medical care will take.

Contrary to respondents' contention, application of the doctrine of informed consent to circumstances other than treatment of a diagnosed disease is nothing new. Miller v. Kennedy itself involved evaluating the risks of a diagnostic procedure, a kidney biopsy. In Young v. Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, 85 Wash.2d 332, 534 P.2d 1349 (1975), the doctrine was applied to a determination whether childbirth should take a natural course, where this question again was not one of treatment of a known disease. See also Holt v. Nelson, 11 Wash.App. 230, 523 P.2d 211 (1974). The physician's duty of disclosure arises, therefore, whenever the doctor becomes aware of an abnormality which may indicate risk or danger. Betesh v. United States, 400 F.Supp. 238 (D.D.C.1974). The facts which must be disclosed are all those facts the physician knows or should know which the patient needs in order to make the decision. To require less would be to deprive the patient of the capacity to choose the course his or her life will take.

In this case jury questions were raised as to whether Dr. Hargiss disclosed all the facts which he had a duty to disclose and, if not, whether Mrs. Gates was injured thereby. We conclude the trial court erred in refusing the requested Supplemental Instruction No. 2.

Reasonable Prudence in Medical Practice

Petitioners' requested Supplemental Instruction No. 3 3 was based on the rule of Helling v....

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51 cases
  • Welfare of Colyer, Matter of
    • United States
    • Washington Supreme Court
    • March 10, 1983
    ... ... Gates v. Jensen, ... Page 122 ... 92 Wash.2d 246, 595 P.2d 919 (1979); RCW 7.70.050. Such information must include the possibility of alternative ... ...
  • Jandre v. Wis. Injured Patients & Families Comp. Fund
    • United States
    • Wisconsin Supreme Court
    • April 17, 2012
    ... ... 118 196 Other state courts are not as clearly inconsistent with the present case as PIC wishes us to believe. For example, in Gates v. Jensen, 92 Wash.2d 246, 595 P.2d 919 (1979), the physician diagnosed the problem as eye irritation from contact lenses but could not rule out ... ...
  • McKee v. American Home Products, Corp.
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    • Washington Supreme Court
    • November 30, 1989
    ... ...         These distinctions can be illustrated by our prior cases on the duties of health care professionals. In Gates v. Jensen, 92 Wash.2d 246, 595 P.2d 919 (1979) we recognized a duty to warn distinct from the general health care professional's duty of due care ... ...
  • Harbottle v. Braun
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    • Washington Court of Appeals
    • August 27, 2019
    ... ... duty to obtain informed consent "is not confined to the choice of treatment once a disease is present and has been conclusively diagnosed." Gates v. Jensen , 92 Wash.2d 246, 250, 595 P.2d 919 (1979). In certain circumstances, "the right to informed consent can include the process of ... ...
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7 books & journal articles
  • A New Approach to Statutory Interpretation in Washington
    • United States
    • Seattle University School of Law Seattle University Law Review No. 25-04, June 2002
    • Invalid date
    ...to malpractice to define the standard of care more restrictively. The Court reaffirmed Helling in Gates v. Jensen, 92 Wash. 2d 246, 595 P.2d 919 (1979), despite the Legislature's action and its specific reference in a bill report to its intent to overrule 19. See, e.g., Ino Ino v. City of B......
  • Legislative History in Washington
    • United States
    • Seattle University School of Law Seattle University Law Review No. 7-03, March 1984
    • Invalid date
    ...(distinguishing Hama Hama Co. v. Shorelines Hearings Bd., 85 Wash. 2d 441, 536 P.2d 157 (1975)); Gates v. Jensen, 92 Wash. 2d 246, 253-54, 595 P.2d 919, 924 (1979) (substitute bill); Marchioro v. Chaney, 90 Wash. 2d 298, 307-08, 582 P.2d 487, 492-93 (1978), aff'd, 442 U.S. 191 (1979) (const......
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    • United States
    • Iowa Law Review No. 97-4, May 2012
    • May 1, 2012
    ...Deference to Custom: Malpractice Law at the Millennium , 57 WASH. & LEE L. REV. 163, 171–72 (2000). 142. Id. at 169. 143. Gates v. Jensen, 595 P.2d 919, 923–24 (Wash. 1979). 2012] TOWARD A THEORY OF MEDICAL MALPRACTICE 1229 treatment. 144 Gates was one of those cases: there, ophthalmologist......
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    • Seattle University School of Law Seattle University Law Review No. 17-01, September 1993
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    ...for Personal Injury 3 (1991). 388. Sugarman, supra note 385, at 1499. 389. Starr, supra note 375, at 807-08. 390. 92 Wash. 2d 246, 595 P.2d 919 391. See Starr, supra note 375, at 808. 392. The suggestion of a no-fault compensation plan is not new; it has been proposed by a number of scholar......
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