In 1915, an 11-year old named George Hawkins turned on the kitchen light and accidentally scarred his hand when it touched an electrical wire in the process. In 1922 his father was approached by Dr. Edward McGee, who offered to remove the scars and give George a “100% good hand” by using a skin graft procedure he’d seen used during World War I. They agreed, and McGee operated, taking grafts from George’s chest (though he’d said they’d come from George’s thigh).

Unfortunately for George, Dr. McGree wasn’t that good a grafter, and he failed to remove the scare tissue before grafting. As a result the hand partially curled up (occasionally bleeding on and off the rest of George’s life), the skin that grew in place of the graft on George’s chest was very thin; and–worst of all!— George’s palm grew thick hair from the chest hair that had been in the skin grafts.

Hawkins sued for breach of contract.

 

The Case

Hawkins won easily, both at its first trial and then on appeal before the New Hampshire Supreme Court. But the big difference- and why this case is studied- is the damages. The lower court had said Hawkins should be paid the cost of having had the operation and the pain form it being botched, an amount about $600. However, the Supreme Court instead said he should be paid the amount between what a good hand would’ve gotten him and the hairy hand he’d gotten- a concept that’s become known as “Expectation Damages,” and which was eventually determined to be $1,400.

 

The Point

The “Hairy Hand” case, as it’s become known, is a staple of contract laws and a fun for law students to read. Most famously it is the case used by Professor Kingsfield in the opening scene of the legal movie classic The Paper Chase.

George himself later had specialists in Montreal, Canada, look at it to see if it could be fixed, but was told surgery would do little good. Thus he spent the rest of life dealing with it the best he could, despite suffering long-long emotional distress about it (and gaining an understandable reputation about being very sensitive about his hand.) George’s family didn’t know of his legal fame until George’s niece Gail went to law school and saw it in her textbook— a discovery that was later repeated when George’s wife, Edith, saw The Paper Chase.