Canterbury v. Spence – Case Brief

Canterbury v. Spence, 464 F.2d 772 (D.C. Cir. 1972).

Facts: Canterbury (P) arranged to have back surgery performed by Spence (D). Spence did not tell Canterbury of the potential risks of the surgery and P did not ask. While performing the surgery D noticed that P’s spinal cord was swollen and took measures to relieve the pressure. While P was recovering in the hospital after the surgery he slipped and was almost paralyzed. D performed another surgery and P’s condition improved.

P sued D on the grounds that D did not inform him of the potential risks of the surgery. P also sued the hospital for not equipping his bed with a bed rail and for not having a nurse present to assist him at the time of his fall. The court ordered a directed verdict in favor of D on the grounds that P had failed to produce any evidence of negligence. The court did not address the issue of breach of duty by D by not informing P of the potential risks. P appealed.

Must a physician inform a prospective patient of all reasonable risks involved with the proposed treatment?

Holding and Rule: Yes. A physician should convey the risks of an operation when a reasonable person would be likely to attach significance to the risk in deciding whether or not to forgo the proposed therapy. The standard measuring performance of the duty to disclose is conduct which is reasonable under the circumstances. There are two exceptions to this general rule: (1) where the patient is unconscious and harm from a failure to treat is greater than any harm threatened by the proposed treatment; and (2) where disclosing the risk to the patient poses a threat to the patients well being.

Disposition: Reversed in P’s favor and remanded for a new trial.

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