The Case of the Hairy Hand

A legal case that's too weird to forget

Illustration by Brittany Inglese

Popular culture is filled with dramatic, sensational court cases, but few endure beyond a few news cycles. To hold the head and heart of the simpleton and scholar, the case must not only be a good story, but also cut a clearer path to understanding the law or at least encouraging a good argument.

The New Hampshire case of the “Hairy Hand” [Hawkins vs. McGee] does all of this and more. It has made its way into Hollywood trivia and the standard curriculum for teaching contract law to first-year law students.

While more people go to the movies than law school, the case is best known for its prominent role in the film “The Paper Chase” (1973), where the demanding and at times demeaning Harvard Law School Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr., played masterfully by John Houseman, peppers an unsuspecting student on the first day of class with questions about the case. Kingsfield famously tackled the tedious abstract question of contract law’s most basic legal principle — the “expectation of damages” in a breached contract. He asks, “How should the court measure the damages [and determine the dollar value between the difference between what is promised and what is delivered]?”

The heart of the “Hawkins vs. McGee” case is the value of a perfect hand or the loss of human opportunity because of a deformed, hairy hand.

The story starts on a stormy March night in 1914, when two downed electrical wires cross, causing a surge of power into the Berlin home of Charles and Rose Hawkins. The next morning, their 10-year-old son George got a third-degree electrical burn on his right hand when he flipped on the kitchen light switch. The burn was treated and left the boy with a pencil-width scar across his palm. His family consulted a specialist in Montreal, but were advised to do nothing.

As the years passed, the boy’s growing hand seemed to lose agility and was slowly being constrained by the stagnant, inflexible and deep scar tissue on the palm of his hand. This caused George’s hand to contract and his fingers to form a somewhat cup-like position. At 17, George left school and went to work in the local paper mill, where his “bum hand” began to impact his dexterity.

What occurs next is not exactly clear because, as Mark Twain said, “Never let the truth get in the way of good story” and because there are two diverging theories — one that  is cold and calculating, and another that is driven by nuances of personal emotion and philosophical ponderings. The first sees George Hawkins’ hand as a machine and the other as a vital part of his basic humanity. And finally, there are several trials involving different entities, a limited state Supreme Court ruling and several prominent scholarly articles drawing information from various sources.

“Allow people to bargain for less. McGee should have bargained down, not up.”

Depending on the source, Edward McGee, a local doctor, either responds to Hawkins’ request to make his hand more functional than aesthetically pleasing and has limited experience with skin grafting, or he aggressively hounds Hawkins so he can experiment with skin grafting, something he only observed while in Europe during World War II. There is no dispute that McGee did promise to “guarantee to make the hand a 100-percent perfect hand.”

McGee surgically removed scar tissue from Hawkins’ palm, grafted skin from his chest, then affixed his palm to his chest so the skin would begin to grow together.
Finally, he separated the hand from the chest. McGee considered the procedure a success, but soon the palm began to grow thick, matted hair and occasionally bled.

Hawkins sued McGee for a breach of contract, not malpractice. This, according to UNH School of Law Professor Marcus Hurn, set a much lower standard. Malpractice is measured by “ordinary care and skill,” and a contract is a promise of 100-percent success.  McGee countered that it is unreasonable to interpret his “strong language” as “any contractual relationship.” But each of the courts disagreed, the contract stood and the question was over financial damages.

After a hung jury, a Coos County jury awarded Hawkins $3,000 but the judge said anything over $500 was excessive. The case was appealed to the state’s Supreme Court, which sent it back to the lower court with instruction that the award not be limited and that the value of the damages be based on the theory of “expectation damages,” the harm caused by the contract not being performed. That being the difference between a “perfect hand” and “the hand in its present condition.” The court said the mere “failure to improve the condition of the hand” was key, but they were less than sympathetic when it came to damages for pain and suffering. It set forth the cold analogy of the “hand” being like a “machine” and backed it up with several commercial contract cases.

Some argue that the court got it wrong and should have used the “reliance damages,” the value of restoring the harmed party to the position if the contract had not been made. The difference, they contend, should have been between the pre-operation hand and the post-operation hand, and that while the post-operation hand was ugly (and hairy) it was more functional. Ultimately, the case was settled when Hawkins, by then 19 years old, agreed to take $1,400 ($20,000 in today’s dollars) in June 1929. Four months later, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. McGee later unsuccessfully sued his malpractice insurance company to recover the damages he paid Hawkins.

The case of the “Hairy Hand” is one of the first cases taught in law school. It is also one of the most vivid. “The sheer grossness of it grabs students’ attention,” said Linda Upham-Bornstein, PhD., a legal historian at Plymouth State University, “It pulls them in.”

The story is packed with emotion — pity for the poor boy who becomes a freak, with anger at a system that so wore him down that, after his Supreme Court win, he settled for damages that were less than half what the jury previously awarded. It also shows how difficult it is to apply the general principles of transactional world of contract law to a young man’s hand.

But it is also practical. Professor Hurn, like many of his colleagues around the country, uses Hawkins vs. McGee to teach contracts. “Contract [law] professors are broken into two camps — [those whose study begins with] formation or remedy. This case deals with both, so each school can use it.”

And the moral of the story? Hurn says, “Allow people to bargain for less. McGee should have bargained down, not up.”

Categories: NH Law