Man Says Doctor Shouldn't Have Listened -- After Giving Permission To Reattach His Severed Hand, Patient Reneges, Then Sues

NORFOLK, Va. - Thomas Passmore raised his right hand to be sworn as a witness - but where the hand should have been was a silver-metal hook.

How it got that way is a $3 million question.

Yesterday, testimony began in one of the oddest cases to enter Norfolk Circuit Court in years. It poses the question: Can a man who intentionally cut off his own hand, then refused to let a doctor reattach it, sue the doctor and hospital for following his instructions?

Passmore says he was psychotic when he cut off the hand, thinking it was possessed by the devil. He says he was psychotic when he refused reattachment surgery. Therefore, he says, he was not competent to make informed decisions, and the doctors should have known that. He is suing Sentara Norfolk General Hospital and a hand surgeon, Dr. Tad Grenga of Portsmouth, Va., for $3 million.

Passmore says the doctor should have ignored his wishes and gotten a court order to reattach the hand.

The hospital and Grenga disagree.

Grenga's attorney, John Fitzpatrick, called it "about as frivolous a lawsuit as it gets. No one acted more reasonably and no one wanted to put the hand back on more than (Grenga)," Fitzpatrick told the jury yesterday.

An unlikely series of events prompted the dispute.

Passmore was 30 years old and had been unemployed and homeless when he cut off his hand at a construction site in Kill Devil Hills, N.C. He had a history of alcoholism and psychotic disorders.

Passmore was on the first day of a $7-an-hour construction cleanup job on April 27, 1994. He spied a table saw.

A few minutes later, Passmore said, he hallucinated that he saw the numbers "666" on his right hand. "It meant that I was evil," Passmore testified.

Recalling the biblical verse "If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee," Passmore did just that.

Co-workers saw what happened and saved the hand in an ice chest. Passmore was flown to Norfolk General.

At first, Passmore agreed to surgery and signed a consent form. But in the operating room, he changed his mind. "I said it's against my religion," Passmore recalled in court. The doctor asked: What religion? Passmore said: "My own."

Passmore warned the doctor, "If you sew it back on, I'll cut it off again," according to the opening court statement of Grenga's attorney.

Grenga consulted a judge, who said that if the doctor did the reattachment, Passmore might have grounds to accuse him of assault and battery.

At that point, Grenga closed the wound but did not reattach the hand.