Cotnam v. Wisdom | 104 SW 164 | July 15, 1907 | Kessler, Gilmore & Kronman


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by Kessler, Gilmore & Kronman

104 S.W. 164






WISDOM et al.


Supreme Court of Arkansas.


July 15, 1907.




Appeal from Circuit Court, Pulaski County; R. J. Lea, Judge.


Action by F. L. Wisdom and another against T. T. Cotnam, administrator of A. M. Harrison, deceased, for services rendered by plaintiffs as surgeons to defendant's intestate. Judgment for plaintiffs. Defendant appeals. Reversed and remanded.


Instructions 1 and 2, given at the instance of plaintiffs, are as follows: (1) If you find from the evidence that plaintiffs rendered professional services as physicians and surgeons to the deceased, A. M. Harrison, in a sudden emergency following the deceased's injury in a street car wreck, in an endeavor to save his life, then you are instructed that plaintiffs are entitled to recover from the estate of the said A. M. Harrison such sum as you may find from the evidence is a reasonable compensation for the services rendered. (2) The character and importance of the operation, the responsibility resting upon the surgeon performing the operation, his experience and professional training, and the ability to pay of the person operated upon, are elements to be considered by you in determining what is a reasonable charge for the services performed by plaintiffs in the particular case.


Mehaffy, Williams & Armistead, for appellant. Moore, Smith & Moore, for appellees.


HILL, C. J. (after stating the facts).


The reporter will state the issues and substance of the testimony and set out instructions 1 and 2 given at instance of appellee, and it will be seen therefrom that instruction 1 amounted to a peremptory instruction to find for the plaintiff in some amount.


The first question is as to the correctness of this instruction. As indicated therein the facts are that Mr. Harrison, appellant's intestate, was thrown from a street car, receiving serious injuries which rendered him unconscious, and while in that condition the appellees were notified of the accident and summoned to his assistance by some spectator, and performed a difficult operation in an effort to save his life, but they were unsuccessful, and he died without regaining consciousness. The appellant says: "Harrison was never conscious after his head struck the pavement. He did not and could not, expressly or impliedly, assent to the action of the appellees. He was without knowledge or will power. However merciful or benevolent may have been the intention of the appellees, a new rule of law, of contract by implication of law, will have to be established by this court in order to sustain the recovery." Appellant is right in saying that the recovery must be sustained by a contract by implication of law, but is not right in saying that it is a new rule of law, for such contracts are almost as old as the English system of jurisprudence. They are usually called "implied contracts." More properly they should be called "quasi contracts" or "constructive contracts." See 1 Page on Contracts, § 14; also 2 Page on Contracts, § 771.


The following excerpts from Sceva v. True, 53 N. H. 627, are peculiarly applicable here:


We regard it as well settled by the cases referred to in the briefs of counsel, many of which have been commented on at length by Mr. Shirley for the defendant, that an insane person, an idiot, or a person utterly bereft of all sense and reason by the sudden stroke of an accident or disease may be held liable, in assumpsit, for necessaries furnished to him in good faith while in that unfortunate and helpless condition. And the reasons upon which this rest are too broad, as well as too sensible and humane, to be overborne by any deductions which a refined logic may make from the circumstances that in such cases there can be no contract or promise, in fact, no meeting of the minds of the parties. The cases put it on the ground of an implied contract; and by this is not meant, as the defendant's counsel seems to suppose, an actual contract — that is, an actual meeting of the minds of the parties, an actual, mutual understanding, to be inferred from language, acts, and circumstances by the jury — but a contract and promise, said to be implied by the law, where, in point of fact, there was no contract, no mutual understanding, and so no promise. The defendant's counsel says it is usurpation for the court to hold, as a matter of law, that there is a contract and a promise, when all the evidence in the case shows that there was not a contract, nor the semblance of one. It is doubtless a legal fiction, invented and used for the sake of the remedy. If it was originally usurpation, certainly it has now become very inveterate, and firmly fixed in the body of the law. Illustrations might be multiplied, but enough has been said to show that when a contract or promise implied by law is spoken of, a very different thing is meant from a contract in fact, whether express or tacit. The evidence of an actual contract is generally to be found either in some writing made by the parties, or in verbal communications which passed between them, or in their acts and conduct considered in the light of the circumstances of each particular case. A contract implied by law, on the contrary, rests upon no evidence. It has no actual existence. It is simply a mythical creation of the law. The law says it shall be taken that there was a [166] promise, when in point of fact, there was none. Of course this is not good logic, for the obvious and sufficient reason that it is not true. It is a legal fiction, resting wholly for its support on a plain legal obligation, and a plain legal right. If it were true, it would not be a fiction. There is a class of legal rights, with their correlative legal duties, analogous to the obligations quasi ex contractu of the civil law, which seem to he in the region between contracts on the one hand, and torts on the other, and to call for the application of a remedy not strictly furnished either by actions ex contractu or actions ex delicto. The common law supplies no action of duty, as it does of assumpsit and trespass; and hence the somewhat awkward contrivance of this fiction to apply the remedy of assumpsit where there is no true contract and no promise to support it.




This subject is fully discussed in Beach on the Modern Law of Contracts, 639 et seq., and 2 Page on Contracts, 771 et seq. One phase in the law of implied contracts was considered in the case of Lewis v. Lewis, 75 Ark. 191, 87 S. W. 134. In its practical application it sustains recovery for physicians and nurses who render services for infants, insane persons, and drunkards. 2 Page on Contracts, §§ 867, 897, 906. And services rendered by physicians to persons unconscious or helpless by reason of injury or sickness are in the same situation as those rendered to persons incapable of contracting, such as the classes above described. Raoul v. Newman, 59 Ga. 408; Meyer v. K. of P., 70 N. E. 111, 178 N. Y. 63, 64 L. R. A. 839. The court was therefore right in giving the instruction in question.


2. The defendant sought to require the plaintiff to prove, in addition to the value of the services, the benefit, if any, derived by the deceased from the operation, and alleges error in the court refusing to so instruct the jury. The court was right in refusing to place this burden upon the physicians. The same question was considered in Ladd v. Witte, 116 Wis. 35, 92 N. W. 365, where the court said:


That is not at all the test. So that a surgical operation be conceived and performed with due skill and care, the price to be paid therefor does not depend upon the result. The event so generally lies with the forces of nature that all intelligent men know and understand that the surgeon is not responsible therefor. In absence of express agreement, the surgeon, who brings to such a service due skill and care, earns the reasonable and customary price therefor, whether the outcome be beneficial to the patient or the reverse.




3. The court permitted to go to the jury the fact that Mr. Harrison was a bachelor, and that his estate would go to his collateral relatives, and also permitted proof to be made of the value of the estate, which amounted to about $18,500, including $10,000 from accident and life insurance policies. There is a conflict in the authorities as to whether it is proper to prove the value of the estate of a person for whom medical services were rendered, or the financial condition of the person receiving such services. In Robinson v. Campbell, 47 Iowa, 625, it was said: "There is no more reason why this charge should be enhanced on account of the ability of the defendants to pay than that the merchant should charge them more for a yard of cloth, or the druggist for filling a prescription, or a laborer for a day's work." On the other hand, see Haley's Succession, 50 La. Ann. 840, 24 South. 285, and Lange v. Kearney, 4 N. Y. Supp. 14, 51 Hun, 640, which was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, 127 N. Y. 676, 28 N. E. 255, holding that the financial condition of the patient may be considered. Whatever may be the true principle governing this matter in contracts, the court is of the opinion that the financial condition of a patient cannot be considered where there is no contract and recovery is sustained on a legal fiction which raises a contract in order to afford a remedy which the justice of the case requires. In Morrissett v. Wood, 123 Ala. 384, 26 South. 307, 82 Am. St. Rep. 127, the court said:


The trial court erred in admitting testimony as to the value of the patient's estate, against the objection of the defendant. The inquiry was as to the value of the professional services rendered by the plaintiff to the defendant's testator, and, as the case was presented below, the amount or value of the latter's estate could shed no legitimate light upon this issue nor aid in its elucidation. The cure or amelioration of disease is as important to a poor man as it is to a rich one, and, prima facie at least, the services rendered the one are of the same value as the same services rendered to the other. If there was a recognized usage obtaining in the premises here involved to graduate professional charges with reference to the financial condition of the person for whom such services are rendered, which had been so long established and so universally acted upon as to have ripened into a custom of such character that it might be considered that these services were rendered and accepted in contemplation of it, there is no hint of it in the evidence.




There was evidence in this case proving that it was customary for physicians to graduate their charges by the ability of the patient to pay, and hence, in regard to that element, this case differs from the Alabama case. But the value of the Alabama decision is the reason given which may admit such evidence, viz., because the custom would render the financial condition of the patient a factor to be contemplated by both parties when the services were rendered and accepted. The same thought differently expressed is found in Lange v. Kearney, 4 N. Y. Supp. 14, 51 Hun, 640. This could not apply to a physician called in an emergency by some bystander to attend a stricken man whom he never saw or [167] heard of before; and certainly the unconscious patient could not, in fact or in law, be held to have contemplated what charges the physician might properly bring against him. In order to admit such testimony, it must be assumed that the surgeon and patient each had in contemplation that the means of the patient would be one factor in determining the amount of the charge for the services rendered. While the law may admit such evidence as throwing light upon the contract and indicating what was really in contemplation when it was made, yet a different question is presented when there is no contract to be ascertained or construed, but a mere fiction of law creating a contract where none existed in order that there might be a remedy for a right. This fiction merely requires a reasonable compensation for the services rendered. The services are the same be the patient prince or pauper, and for them the surgeon is entitled to fair compensation for his time, service, and skill. It was therefore error to admit this evidence, and to instruct the jury in the second instruction that in determining what was a reasonable charge they could consider the "ability to pay of the person operated upon."


It was improper to let it go to the jury that Mr. Harrison was a bachelor and that his estate was left to nieces and nephews. This was relevant to no issue in the case, and its effect might well have been prejudicial. While this verdict is no higher than some of the evidence would justify, yet it is much higher than some of the other evidence would justify, and hence it is impossible to say that this was a harmless error.


Judgment is reversed, and cause remanded.


BATTLE and WOOD, JJ., concur in sustaining the recovery, and in holding that it was error to permit the jury to consider the fact that his estate would go to collateral heirs; but they do not concur in holding that it was error to admit evidence of the value of the estate, and instructing that it might be considered in fixing the charge.


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June 02, 2014

"Cotnam v. Wisdom" Cotnam v. Wisdom

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