156 Ind. 416 (1901).

A landmark decision issued by the Indiana Supreme Court which established that the physician-patient relationship is based on contract. The court defined the contract as one into which both the physician and patient voluntarily enter.

On July 6, 1899, Thomas Burk sought the services of Dr. Eddingfield, a duly licensed physician practicing in Montgomery County as well as the Burk’s family physician, to attend Mr. Burk’s wife, Charlotte Burk, in the delivery of their child. Although Dr. Eddingfield had no other pressing matters and there were no other available physicians, he refused to assist Mrs. Burk. Charlotte Burk and her baby died due to complications during the birth process.

Mrs. Burk’s estate sued Dr. Eddingfield for $10,000 in damages for the wrongful death of Mrs. Burk. The trial court sustained Dr. Eddingfield’s demurrer to the complaint. The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed.

The issue facing the court was was the defendant’s “refusal to enter into a contract of employment.” The court also explored the implications of state licensure on a doctor’s obligations toward those in need of medical care and concluded: “In obtaining the State’s license (permission) to practice medicine, the State does not require, and the licensee does not engage, that he will practice at all or on other terms than he may choose to accept.”

The Hurley decision has generated considerable commentary over the years, including articles in notable law reviews, and it is also included in leading health law textbooks. One well-known commentator on the law of medical malpractice illuminates the Hurley case’s national prominence and reiterates its importance in delineating the law of the physician-patient relationship:
The classic case in this area is Hurley vEddingfield, decided in 1901 by the Supreme Court of Indiana…. [T]he court pointed out that the physician-patient contractual relationship is one depending on assent of both parties and that a license to practice medicine does not compel a physician to contract against his will. [Doctors have] the right to refuse to see [a] patient and [are] not therefore liable for the patient’s death.
This case does represent a seemingly stark and harsh statement of a physician’s obligation to a potential patient. It seems especially harsh given its support of the elective nature of the physician-patient relationship, especially in emergency situations. Yet the law does impose considerable obligations on physicians once the physician-patient relationship commences. It seems only fair that physicians have control over whether they enter that relationship with all of its attendant obligations.

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