The Law Relating to Failure by a Medical Practitioner to Advise of Risks

The High Court of Australia affirmed the Supreme Court of New South Wales' determination that a doctor has a duty to warn a patient of any material risk involved in a proposed treatment. A risk is considered material if a reasonable person in similar circumstances would attach significance to the risk, or if the doctor is, or should be, cognizant that the particular patient would express concern about the risk. The trial court overruled the precept that a doctor could not be found negligent in warning a patient if the doctor acted within the purview of common practice, even though other practitioners may follow different procedures and regardless of the particular patient's concerns. In this case, Maree Whitaker became essentially blind after an unsucessful operation on her right eye caused sympathetic ophthalmia in her left eye. Although there was no question that the surgery had been performed with the requisite skill and care, Ms. Whitaker petitioned the court for relief due to the failure of the ophthalmologist, Dr. Christopher Rogers, to warn her of the possibility (approximately 1 in 14,000) that the sympathetic ophthalmia condition could develop. The trial court's award of damages was affirmed because, in spite of Ms. Whitaker's expressed specific concern that her "good eye" not be harmed, Dr. Rogers did not inform her of the potential risks associated with the surgery.