Hawkins v. McGee

Following is the case brief for Hawkins v. McGee, 84 N.H. 114 (1929).

Case Summary of Hawkins v. McGee:

  • A doctor, McGee, guaranteed 100% success in an operation to fix scarring on Hawkins’ hand.  The operation was not successful.
  • Hawkins sued McGee under a breach of contract theory.  Hawkins won at trial, but the court found that the amount of the verdict was excessive.
  • The New Hampshire Supreme Court ordered a new trial.  It held that the proper measure of damages was the difference between what Hawkins was promised — a 100% perfect hand — and the actual result of the operation.

Hawkins v. McGee Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Plaintiff Hawkins, when he was a boy, touched an electric wire with his right hand.  That resulted in severe burns, which left scar tissue in the palm of his hand.  Some nine years later, Hawkins and his father went to a doctor, Defendant McGee.  McGee suggested a grafting operation, which he said would “guarantee” that Hawkins would have a 100% perfect/good hand as a result of the operation.

McGee then performed the surgery by removing scar tissue from Hawkins’ right hand and grafting skin taken from Hawkins’ chest in its place.  The surgery was not a success.  Hawkins sued McGee under a breach of contract theory.

Procedural History:

Following a trial, the jury found in favor of Hawkins.  On McGee’s motion, however, the trial court set aside the verdict as excessive.  Hawkins appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

Issues and Holdings:

  1. Can a doctor’s promises result in a contract being formed?  Yes.
  2. Are contractual damages measured by the value of what a plaintiff would have received if the contract was not breached?  Yes.

Judgment:

The New Hampshire Supreme Court ordered a new trial.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The measure of a plaintiff’s damages as a result of a breach of contract is the difference between the value plaintiff would have received if defendant did not breach the contract and the value that plaintiff actually received.

Reasoning:

First, the New Hampshire Supreme Court found that McGee’s statement, guaranteeing a 100% perfect/good hand, created a contract between Hawkins and McGee.  That is because there was evidence at trial showing that McGee solicited Hawkins and his father to do the surgery.  McGee, in fact, did not have much experience with skin grafting and sought Hawkins to get more experience with the procedure.

Second, based on similar contract cases, the proper measure of damages is the difference between what was promised and the actual result.  The trial court improperly instructed the jury that the measure of damages should be Hawkins’ pain and suffering.  Since pain and suffering is expected to occur by virtue of the operation itself, a new trial is necessary so the jury is instructed on the proper measure of damages.

Significance:

This case is the famous “hairy hand” case that virtually every law student studies in a first year Contracts class.  Interestingly, the opinion never mentions that hair grew on Hawkins’ palm, but a subsequent case makes mention of that fact.  See McGee v. United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co., 53 F.2D 953 (1st Cir. 1931).  It is also a leading case on one of the proper measures of contract damages.

Student Resources:

http://madisonian.net/downloads/contracts/hawkins.pdf

http://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/F2/53/953/1543991/

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