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Canterbury v. Spence

Law Dictionary

Law Dictionary

Featuring Black's Law Dictionary 2nd Ed.
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Torts Keyed to Epstein

Citation. Spence v. Canterbury, 1972 U.S. LEXIS 348, 409 U.S. 1064, 93 S. Ct. 560, 34 L. Ed. 2d 518 (U.S. Nov. 1, 1972).

Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff experienced back pain. Defendant told Plaintiff that he needed surgery, but did not inform of the risks of the surgery. Plaintiff sued Defendant for negligently withholding the risk of the surgery.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. A doctor has a duty to disclose all reasonable information about a proposed treatment to his patients.

Facts. Plaintiff consulted Defendant, a doctor, after experiencing severe back pain. Defendant had the Plaintiff undergo a myelogram, which revealed that the Plaintiff suffered from a filling defect in the region of his fourth thoracic vertabra. Defendant told Plaintiff that he needed to undergo a laminectomy to correct what he suspected was a ruptured disc. Defendant did not tell Plaintiff the details of the proposed operation nor did Plaintiff inquire about them. Defendant told Plaintiff’s mom that the operation was a serious one, but not any more serious than any other operation. Defendant performed the operation and discovered Plaintiff’s swollen spinal cord to be in very poor condition. Defendant did what he could to relieve the pressure and left Plaintiff in bed to recuperate. Plaintiff was recuperating, when he slipped off the side of the bed and suffered near-complete paralysis. There was no one there to assist him and no side rail to break his fall. Defendant performed an em
ergency operation and Plaintiff’s condition improved. Plaintiff sued Defendant for negligence in the performance of the laminectomy and for failure to inform him of the risk involved. Plaintiff introduced no evidence to show medical and hospital practices customarily pursued in regard to the critical aspects of the case. Defendant testified that even without trauma, paralysis can be anticipated somewhere in the nature of one percent. Defendant felt that communication of the risk to Plaintiff was not good medical practice because it might deter him from undergoing needed surgery and might produce adverse physiological reactions, which could preclude the success of the operation. The trial court held that Plaintiff failed to produce any medical evidence indicating negligence. Plaintiff appealed.

Issue. Does Defendant have a duty to disclose the risk associated with surgery?
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