Schloendorff v. Soc'y of New York Hosp.

CourtNew York Court of Appeals
Citation105 N.E. 92,211 N.Y. 125
Decision Date14 April 1914


Appeal from Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department.

Action by Mary E. Schloendorff against the Society of the New York Hospital. From a judgment of the Appellate Division, First Department (149 App. Div. 915,133 N. Y. Supp. 1143) affirming a judgment on a directed verdict for defendant, plaintiff appeals. Affirmed.

Augustus Van Wyck, of New York City, for appellant.

Austen G. Fox, of New York City, for respondent.


[1] 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. People ex rel. Society of N. Y. Hospital v. Purdy, 58 Hun, 386, 12 N. Y. Supp. 307;Id., 126 N. Y. 679, 28 N. E. 249.

[2] 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 physician, 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.

[3][4] 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. Hordern v. Salvation Army, 199 N. Y. 233, 92 N. E. 626, 32 L. R. A. (N. S.) 62, 139 Am. St. Rep. 889; Collins v. N. Y. Post Graduate Med. School & Hospital, 59 App. Div. 63,69 N. Y. Supp. 106, and cases there cited; Wilson v. Brooklyn Homeopathic Hospital, 97 App. Div. 37,89 N. Y. Supp. 619;Cunningham v. Sheltering Arms, 135 App. Div. 178,119 N. Y. Supp . 1033;Bruce v. Central M. E. Church, 147 Mich. 230, 110 N. W. 951,10 L. R. A. (N. S.) 74,11 Ann. Cas. 150;U. P. R. Co. v. Artist, 60 Fed. 365, 9 C. C. A. 14, 23 L. R. A. 581;Hearns v. Waterbury Hospital, 66 Conn. 98, 33 Atl. 595,31 L. R. A. 224; Hillyer v. St. Bartholomew's Hospital, [1909] 2 K. B. 820. 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. Hordern v. Salvation Army, supra. The hospital remains exempt, though the patient makes some payment to help defray the cost of board. Collins v. N. Y. Post Graduate Med. School & Hospital, supra; Wilson v. Brooklyn Homeopathic Hospital, supra; Cunningham v. Sheltering Arms, supra; McDonald v. Mass. Gen. Hospital, 120 Mass. 432, 21 Am. Rep. 529;Downs v. Harper Hospital, 101 Mich. 555, 60 N. W. 42,25 L. R. A. 602, 45 Am. St. Rep. 427;Powers v. Mass. Hospital, 109 Fed. 294, 47 C. C. A. 122, 65 L. R. A. 372. 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 employés committed within the line of their employment. Kellogg v. Church Charity Foundation, 203 N. Y. 191, 96 N. E. 406, 38 L. R. A. (N. S.) 481, Ann. Cas. 1913A, 883; Hordern v. Salvation Army, supra.

[5][6] 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. Pratt v. Davis, 224 Ill. 300, 79 N. E. 562,7 L. R. A. (N. S.) 609,8 Ann. Cas. 197;Mohr v. Williams, 95 Minn. 261, 104 N. W. 12,1 L. R. A. (N. S.) 439, 111 Am. St. Rep. 462,5 Ann. Cas. 303. 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 operation. In this situation, the true ground for the defendant's exemption from liability is that the relation between a hospital and its physicians is not that of master and servant. The hospital does not undertake to act through them, but merely to procure them to act upon their own responsibility. That view of the relation has the support of high authority. The governing principle was well stated by Durfee, C. J., speaking for the Supreme Court of Rhode Island in Glavin v. Rhode Island Hospital, 12 R. I. 411, 424 (34 Am. Rep. 675): ‘If A., out of charity, employs a physician to attend B., his sick neighbor, the physician does not become A.'s servant, and A., if she has been duly careful in selecting him, will not be answerable to B. for his malpractice. The reason is that A. does not undertake to treat B. through the agency of the physician, but only to procure for B. the services of the physician. The relation of master and servant is not established between A. and the physician. And so there is no such relation between the corporation and the physicians and surgeons who give their services at the hospital. It is true the corporation has power to dismiss them; but it has this power, not because they are its servants, but because of its control of the hospital where their services are rendered. They would not recognize the right of the corporation, while retaining them, to direct them in their treatment of patients.’ This language was quoted and adopted in a recent case in England, where the subject of a hospital's liability was much considered. Hillyer v. St. Bartholomew's Hosp., [1909] 2 K. B. 820. In the Court of Appeal it was said by Farwell, L. J.: ‘It is, in my opinion, impossible to contend that Mr. Lockwood, the surgeon, or the acting assistant surgeon, or the acting house surgeon, or the administrator of anaesthetics, or any of them, were servants in the proper sense of the word; they are all professional men, employed by the defendants to exercise their profession to the best of their abilities according to their own discretion; but, in exercising it, they are in no way under the orders or bound to obey the directions of the defendants.’ See, also, Hall v. Lees, [1904] 2 K. B. 602; Evans v. Liverpool Corporation, [1906] 1 K. B. 160; Kellogg v. Church Charity Foundation, 128 App. Div. 214, 216,112 N. Y. Supp. 566;Hearne v. Waterbury Hospital, 66 Conn. 98, 33 Atl. 595,31 L. R. A. 224;Laubheim v. De K. N. S. Co., 107 N. Y. 228, 13 N. E. 781,1 Am. St. Rep. 815.

The defendant undertook to procure for this plaintiff the services of a physician. It...

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