Kawaauhau v. Geiger

523 U.S. 57 (1998)


P sought treatment from D for a foot injury. Although D knew that intravenous penicillin would have been more effective, he prescribed oral penicillin, explaining in his testimony that he understood his patient wished to minimize the cost of her treatment. D left on a trip, leaving P in the care of other physicians, who decided to transfer her to an infectious disease specialist. When D returned, he canceled the transfer and discontinued all antibiotics because he believed the infection had subsided. P's condition deteriorated over the next few days, requiring an amputation of her right leg below the knee. P sued for malpractice. The jury awarded $355,000 in damages. D was not required to carry malpractice insurance. D petitioned for bankruptcy. P requested the judgment be nondischargeable on the ground that it was a debt 'for willful and malicious injury' excepted from discharge by 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(6). The Court concluded that D's treatment fell far below the appropriate standard of care and therefore, ranked as 'willful and malicious.' It held the debt nondischargeable. The District Court affirmed. A three-judge panel reversed, and a divided en banc court adhered to the panel's position. Section 523(a)(6)'s exemption from discharge is confined to debts 'based on what the law has for generations called an intentional tort.' Malpractice based on conduct that is negligent or reckless, rather than intentional, remains dischargeable. P appealed.