Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Washerwoman Syndrome Definition:

Changes in the skin condition that result from being immersed in water.

Related Terms: Pathology

In R v Khan, Justice Arbour of Canada's Supreme Court used these words, at ¶44:

"Dr. MacDonald's opinion that the deceased did not die in the bathtub was based on the absence of washerwoman changes or syndrome on her body.

"Washerwoman syndrome may be described as changes in the skin condition that result from being immersed in water. According to Dr. MacDonald, if the deceased was in cool water, which would reduce the extent of washerwoman changes, he would not have expected the extent of rigor which was observed by the first responders."

In the Manitoba Court of Appeal, the court repeated these words used by the same expert at trial:

"Dr. MacDonald bases his opinion that Sureta Khan did not die in the bathtub from the absence of washerwoman changes or syndrome on her body. He testified as follows:

"Q: Now, having made your entire examination of this body, what did you conclude with respect to whether this body died in the tub?

"A: Well, on the basis of the temperature and the presence of rigor, I think this person has been dead at least a couple of hours. If this person was in a warm bathtub dead for a couple of hours, I would have expected quite advanced and easily identifiable washerwoman's changes in the hands and, given her damaged feet, very marked on the feet. It's not there. She has not been two hours dead in that tub.

"The pathologist described washerwoman syndrome as a change in the skin condition as a result of being immersed in water. He testified as follows: 'Those changes are sometimes referred to as washerwoman's changes to the skin, and it's basically a swelling of the skin as it absorbs water. And as the skin absorbs water the proteins in it actually increase in length, so you get greater area than normal, so it folds up and wrinks and it's white and it's soft and it will tear relatively easily. This was examined for in great detail. It normally appears on the hands first in immersion and there was no evidence of this on the hands whatsoever. There was some wrinkling of the skin on the feet but this woman had previously had an injury that could account for those.'"1

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