Patients are generally persons unlearned in the medical sciences and therefore, except in rare cases, courts may safely assume the knowledge of patient and physician are not in parity. A person of adult years and in sound mind has the right, in the exercise of control over his own body, to determine whether or not to submit to lawful medical treatment. The patient's consent to treatment, to be effective, must be an informed consent. The patient, being unlearned in medical sciences, has an abject dependence upon and trust in his physician for the information upon which he relies during the decisional process, thus raising an obligation in the physician that transcends arms-length transactions.
Respondent patient filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against appellant doctor seeking recovery for damages as a result of surgery performed by appellant. The trial court instructed the jury that the appellant was negligent either in deciding to operate or during the operating procedure, and that in failing to sufficiently disclose as to the risks involved in the procedure, there was no informed consent. A general verdict was entered against appellant, and appellant sought review.
Did the instructions to the jury adequately set forth the nature of a medical doctor's duty to obtain the informed consent of a patient before undertaking treatment?
The court found that there was not substantial evidence to support a jury verdict on the issue of appellant's liability on the theory that he was negligent either when he decided to operate or in performing the surgery. Further, the court found that it was not clear whether the jury found liability on appellant's decision to perform the operation or whether it found him liable under the alternative theory of failure to obtain informed consent for surgery. The court reversed the judgment, remanded the case for a new trial with instructions that the case constituted an action in negligence, and held that as an integral part of a doctor's overall obligation to the patient there was a duty of reasonable disclosure of the available choices with respect to proposed therapy and of the dangers inherently and potentially involved in each.