Mary sued the non-profit hospital, seeking to hold the institution liable for the acts of the doctors and nurses it employed. This is the legal doctrine of respondeat superior. There was no claim of liability against the individual physicians or nurses in this case.
This oft-quoted and misunderstood decision gives a fascinating view of hospital care in the U.S. as it existed in the early 20th century. The well-to-do paid $7 a week for care, the needy paid nothing. The decision describes the nurse's role in advising the patient about a surgery planned by the physicians:
There may be cases where a patient ought not to be advised of a contemplated operation until shortly before the appointed hour. To discuss such a subject at midnight might cause needless and even harmful agitation. About such matters a nurse is not qualified to judge. She is drilled to habits of strict obedience. She is accustomed to rely unquestioningly upon the judgment of her superiors.
The case was then appealed to New York's highest state court, the Court of Appeals. To decide the case, the court had to define a non-profit hospital's liability for acts performed by the doctors and nurses it employed. Two theories were offered supporting the conclusion that the hospital was immune from liability for the patient's damages. One theory was that a patient waived the right to sue for negligent treatment when the patient turned to a charity for help (charitable immunity). In rejecting this, Justice Cardozo summarized the state of the common law regarding consent to surgery:
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.
This ringing phrase is technically incorrect. Rather than an assault, Mary Schloendorff's injuries resulted from a battery. A civil assault is "an intentional attempt to do injury or commit a battery upon the person of another." 6 N.Y. JUR. 2d Assault-Civil Aspects s 1 (1980). The assault requires an intent to inflict injury or put the victim in apprehension of such injury. 6 N.Y. JUR. 2d Assault-Civil Aspects s 1. A battery consists of the slightest touching, with the only intent required being the intent to make contact, not intent to do injury. Id. at s 4.
Judges: Justice Cardozo wrote the opinion, Justices Hiscock, Chase, Collin and Cuddeback, concurred.
Continue on to Opinion.