Harnish v. Children’s Hospital Medical Center
387 Mass. 152, 439 N.E.2d 240 (1982)

  • Harnish went to Children’s Hospital to get a tumor in her neck removed. During the operation, the doctor’s severed a nerve resulting in Harnish losing the use of her tongue. She sued for medical malpractice.
    • Harnish argued that the operation was cosmetic in nature. The doctors did not inform her of the risk of tongue loss. She claimed that if she had known the risks, she would not have consented to the operation.
      • Risk of tongue loss was foreseeable risk in this sort of operation.
    • There was no evidence of negligence in how the operation was performed.
  • The Trial Court found for Children’s Hospital in a non-juty trial. Harnish appealed.
  • The Appellate Court partially reversed and remanded for a jury trial.
    • The Appellate Court found that a doctor owes to the patient the duty to disclose in a reasonable manner all significant medical information that the doctor possesses or reasonably should possess that is material to an intelligent decision by the patient whether to undergo a proposed procedure.
      • The Court recognized that it is difficult to explain complicated medical information to uneducated patients, and that there are an almost unlimited number of possible risks. So the patient’s right to know must be balanced with the burden on the doctor.
    • Up until this point, the general rule was that the doctor must disclose only such information as was customarily disclosed in similar circumstances. But this Court felt that was an inadequate standard.
    • The Court dismissed the charges for an assistant and the hospital, because they had no duty to explain the risk. The case against the doctors was remanded for trial.
      • Harnish would have to show at trial that, had proper information been provided, a reasonable person would not have consented to the operation. That’s a question for a jury to decide, not a medical tribunal.