In episode 15 of the first season of House, Dr. House is served with a federal court order which specifically orders him to treat a particular patient who is needed as a witness in some kind of prosecution. (The patient is in a coma, and will not be able to testify unless he recovers.)

House is one of many doctors in the hospital, and there is no indication that he has any prior relationship with the patient. Doesn't this violate the Thirteenth Amendment?

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    Ordering [some] treatment for the main reason that someone needs to appear in court is in itself even more far fetched. Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 7:55

1 Answer 1


A federal or state court can, in proper cases, order people to take specific actions, In civil suits this is known as "Specific performance". in the Wikipedia article it is said that:

Specific performance is almost never available for contracts of personal service, although performance may also be ensured through the threat of proceedings for contempt of court. ...


Such order[s] are granted when damages are not an adequate remedy and in some specific cases such as land (which is regarded as unique).


... Moreover, performance based on the personal judgment or abilities of the party on which the demand is made is rarely ordered by the court. The reason behind it is that the forced party will often perform below the party's regular standard, when it is in the party's ability to do so.

In the case of contracts calling for specific personal service, such as that of an entertainer, an athlete, or a uniquely qualified professional, courts have been reluctant to order the individual to perform, but have been willing to order the person not to perform similar services for anyone else until the disputed contract is fulfilled or settled. This would not seem to apply to the situation on the House show.

Therefore such an order would quite possibly be within a court's power, but would be highly unusual, particularly if other doctors could equally well perform the service and were willing to do so.

Beyond that, the equitable remedy of "specific performance": is used when a party has in fact agreed to do something and then does not carry out the promised act. But in the situation described in the question Dr House had no such previous agreement, as I understand it (I haven't watched the episode). Under those circumstances, an order for such specific action to a particular person becomes very unlikely indeed. There would even be a question whether House would be subject to the court's jurisdiction since he has done nothing to involve himself in the case previously.

Also if the treatment were not in the best interests of the patient, but only in the interest of the court system, such an order would be still more unlikely. I do not know of any similar order in real life.

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    Arguably specific performance for breach of contract doesn't amount to involuntary servitude since the offending party already willingly agreed to perform the action when they entered into the contract and they are now merely being compelled to stand by what they agreed. I wonder if it is a reasonable argument to extrapolate from specific performance that a named doctor (assuming not in breach of any contract or tortious duty of care arising out of a situation he freely entered into) can be compelled to treat someone.
    – JBentley
    Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 7:41
  • I agree with JBentley. There is no need to grant a "remedy" in the first place since House didn't previously injure the patient in a way that could be remedied by treating the patient now (or the government, I suppose)
    – Brian
    Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 13:08
  • @JBentley I was just responding to whether such an order might ever be lawful. I will edit to more specifically consider the particular fact pattern in the question and in the episode). Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 15:05

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