Kawaauhau v. Geiger

LOCATION: National Endowment for the Arts

DOCKET NO.: 97-115
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 523 US 57 (1998)
ARGUED: Jan 21, 1998
DECIDED: Mar 03, 1998

Laura K. Grandy - Argued the cause for the respondent
Norman W. Pressman - Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

In 1983, Margaret Kawaauhau sought treatment from Dr. Paul Geiger for a foot injury. Later, Geiger cancelled Kawaauhau's transfer, by other physicians, to an infectious disease specialist. Ultimately, Kawaauhau required that her right leg be amputated below the knee. In the subsequently malpractice suit, a jury awarded Kawaauhau approximately $355,000 in damages. Geiger, who carried no malpractice insurance, ultimately filed for bankruptcy. Kawaauhau requested the Bankruptcy Court to hold the malpractice judgment nondischargeable under 11 USC section 523(a)(6), which provides that a "discharge [in bankruptcy]... does not discharge an individual debtor from any debt... for willful and malicious injury... to another." The court held the debt nondischargeable. The District Court affirmed. In reversing, the Court of Appeals held that section 523(a)(6)'s exemption from discharge is confined to debts for an intentional tort, so that a debt for malpractice remains dischargeable because it is based on negligent or reckless conduct.


Does a debt arising from a medical malpractice judgment, attributable to negligent or reckless conduct, fall within section 523(a)(6) of the Bankruptcy Code, which provides that a debt "for willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another" is not dischargeable?

Media for Kawaauhau v. Geiger

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 21, 1998 in Kawaauhau v. Geiger

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 97 115, Margaret Kawaauhau v. Paul Geiger.

Mr. Pressman, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Norman W. Pressman:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court--

Section 523 of the Bankruptcy Code excepts willful and malicious injuries from discharge and the bankruptcy court's finding here that Paul Geiger intentionally administered substandard care and that his action shocked even a person lacking formal medical training met this Court's standards set out in Tinker v. Colwell because his actions constituted a willful disregard of his duty.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, Mr. Pressman, when you say that there was a finding that he intentionally administered substandard care, is that any different than a finding that the... that his standard, the standard of care which he recognized was negligent?

Norman W. Pressman:

The distinction here, Your Honor, is that Dr. Geiger knew the standard of care.

He was asked and the record shows that he knew the proper standard of care was the administration of intravenous penicillin and he said, notwithstanding that, I gave Mrs. Kawaauhau oral tetracycline.

The distinction here is the intentional administration of something--

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, I'm not sure I follow you, because you could say that about any number of things where you talk about medical malpractice.

The standard was to perform surgery, but a... in a hypothesis, but this particular doctor prescribed medicine instead.

He intentionally prescribed medicine and, therefore, his action was not merely negligent but intentional.

I think that just blurs the entire dist... difference between negligence and intent.

Norman W. Pressman:

--The distinction here, Your Honor, is that this is not a case of a slip of the scalpel.

If Dr. Geiger had reached into his bag and pulled out the wrong medicine, or if he had botched a complicated medical procedure, we wouldn't have a case.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, what if you have a driver who intentionally puts his car in reverse and doesn't look back to see what's behind him and drives over somebody.

I mean, under your theory, then that's inten... it's willful and no bankruptcy provision applicable.

Indeed, first degree murder.

Yeah, I suppose.

Norman W. Pressman:

In that... I would agree with that... that--

Antonin Scalia:

You would agree.

Norman W. Pressman:

--description, Justice O'Connor--

Antonin Scalia:


Norman W. Pressman:

--that if somebody intentionally says, I'm going to put my car in reverse and I'm going to drive back and I don't care who's there, I think that is intentional.

I believe an example which shows our point is--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

You know, I just find it hard to believe that that's what Congress had in mind in writing this provision for exclusion under the bankruptcy law.

Norman W. Pressman:

--Well, my response to that, Your Honor, would be twofold.

First, I think if we go back to the Tinker case--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, I find Tinker a little hard to understand myself.

I mean, maybe we can confine it to what it is, but I think that's a weak read.

Norman W. Pressman:

--Well, Your Honor, I would compare what happened here... and let me start by saying, I think what's hard initially to understand about this case is that people assume that a physician would always act according to his duty and would never intentionally disregard it.