Hairy Hand Case: A Vampire in the Law School Casebook

Hairy Hand Case: A Vampire in the Law School Casebook

The hand of a vampire is a hairy hand.
Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula has a hairy hand. (c) Yorkman, per Shutterstock, with permission.

Real quick now – can you name the hallmarks of a vampire? Pointed fangs, red eyes, a thirst for blood, and a fear of crucifixes? Did you think of the hairy hand, too? Hair on the palm of the hand is one of the lesser-known signs in vampire folklore. But it might explain some of the hype surrounding the most famous case in the U.S. law school curriculum: Hawkins v. McGee, better known as the “Hairy Hand case.”

The Hairy Hand case in the Law School Curriculum

Students dissect Hawkins v. McGee on their first day of law school. Even if you’ve never been to an American law school, you’re still likely to know the case. In the book and film “Paper Chase,” a Harvard Law School professor grills the students about the Hairy Hand case. You can watch that scene online.

Hawkins v. McGee is a contract case masquerading as medical malpractice. One of the things that makes it so delightfully squirrelly is that law school students have to examine a malpractice slide through a contracts microscope.

In 1922, in the early days of plastic surgery, a boy burnt the palm his hand by handling an electrical wire. When his physician promised to restore the hand 100%, the boy underwent an operation. The doctor grafted skin from the boy’s chest to his palm. Not only did the operation make functional use of the boy’s hand worse, when the boy entered puberty, his palm sprouted ungainly chest hair.

George Hawkins sued Dr. McGee in 1926 and was rewarded $3,000 in damages – a hefty sum for that time. Both parties appealed. In 1929, the appellate court found Dr. McGee’s promise rose to a contract. By failing to deliver the 100% good hand, Dr. McGee had breached the contract.

The Hairy Hand case when through the courts in the 1926-1929 period.
The Hairy Hand case when through the courts in the 1926-1929 period, at the same time Bram Stoker’s Dracula experienced a surge in popularity. (c) Linda Macpherson, per Shutterstock, with permission

But the real issue in the Hairy Hand case was how to measure damages. George Hawkins, the court held, was entitled to expectation damages – the difference between the value of the promised hand Hawkins expected and the value of the non-functional hairy hand he actually received. The court remanded the case back for a new trial, and just before the new trial, the parties settled for $1,400.

Functionality is one thing. But a hairy hand? Isn’t that a just cosmetic issue? I always wondered why anyone would make such a fuss about a problem they could manage on their own with a pair of tweezers.

What we never learned in law school was the vampire folklore flooding the popular period literature and budding on poor George’s palm. That could have explained Hawkin’s – and the jury’s – overreaction to a hirsute palm.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a Backdrop to the Hairy Hand case

A hairy hand appears in Stoker’s gothic novel, too. In chapter 2, Jonathan Harker describes Count Dracula when they first meet in Dracula’s castle. The count has massive eyebrows meeting in the center, pointed ears, and sallow skin. His breath was rank and nauseating. The fingers were squat, and “strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm.”

Although Stoker’s novel eventually came to define the vampire, the book’s success wasn’t overwhelming when Stoker first published it in 1897. It got good reviews (Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, loved it), but Stoker died poor.

Sales didn’t pick up until another case came sailing through the courtroom. In 1922, the same year George Hawkins burnt his hand, F. W. Murneau produced a film version of Dracula called Nosferatu and released it in the theaters. Because he had neglected to ask Stoker’s widow for the rights, she sued him for copyright infringement and won. The legal battle sparked new interest in Dracula and book sales soared. A stage version, approved by Stoker’s widow, opened on Broadway in 1927, starring a then little-known actor named Bela Lugosi.

In the middle of this came George Hawkin’s operation, law suit, and appeal. It is quite likely that while the jury was devouring witness testimony in the Hairy Hand case, it was devouring another Hairy Hand case in the literature and theater. With the sign of the hirsute palm so plainly on the public’s mind, Dr. McGee’s failed surgery had about the same effect as an oral surgeon sending a patient home with fangs. For all appearances, Dr. McGee had sent home a vampire.

Fangs -- the most famous hallmark of the vampire.
Fangs — the most famous hallmark of the vampire. Morguefile photos.

Yikes! That has me wondering if poor George shouldn’t have gotten more than $3,000. We never discussed vampire damages in law school. But the strange timing of the Hairy Hand case, parallel to Dracula’s surge in popularity, makes me feel more sorry for George than anything in law school ever did.

George Hawkins originally wanted much higher damages ($10,000, I think), and now I know why. A page of history is worth a volume of logic.

Do you think the court should award extra damages if a doctor leaves a patient looking like a gothic monster?

Literature on point:

Hawkins v. McGee, 84 N.H. 114, 146 A. 641 (1929)

McGee v. U.S. Fidelity & Guaranty Co., 53 F. 2d 953 (1st Cir. 1931)

Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897)

Written by
Ann Marie
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