Sep 16, 2022

Medical Negligence: Civil and Criminal Liability

Guest post by Pallavi Mohan 

Recently, the Supreme Court of India observed that it is not necessary that every death in a hospital amounts to medical negligence, simply on an assumption of lack of due medical care.

What is Medical Negligence?

Medical Negligence is misconduct by a medical professional that leads to harm or injury to the patient. Medical professionals have a duty of care toward their patients. If a medical professional fails to perform their duty of care to the level they are required to maintain, it is considered Medical Negligence.

Can a patient complain against a medical professional under the Consumer Protection Act?

The Supreme Court in Indian Medical Association v. V.P. Shantha [1995 SCC (6) 651] included the medical profession as a ‘service’ under the Consumer Protection Act.  They held that a person seeking medical attention would be considered a “consumer”, based on the following criteria –

  • The service provided was not free or for a nominal registration fee;
  • If free, the charges were waived because of the patient’s inability to pay;
  • The service was at a private hospital that charges all patients; or
  • An insurance firm paid for the service rendered.

Patients can file complaints against medical professionals for deficiency of service in the District, State and National Consumer Redressal Commissions. To learn more about how to file a consumer complaint, read our explainer.

What have the courts held regarding criminal liability arising out of medical negligence?

The Supreme Court in Jacob Mathew v. State of Punjab [(2005) 6 SCC 1] clarified that negligence differs in the case of civil and criminal law. While looking at medical negligence, the court cannot consider a simple lack of care, an error of judgment or an accident as negligence, if the doctor follows a practice that is the norm in the medical profession at the time. Merely because a better alternative course or method of treatment is available or simply because a more skilled doctor might adopt a different practice or procedure would also not amount to negligence. Also, failing to use extraordinary precautions that could prevent a particular event cannot be the standard for judging negligence.

The Court further observed that to criminally prosecute a medical professional for negligence, it must be shown that they did something or failed to do something which any other medical professional in their ordinary sense and judgment would have done or failed to do.

Why did the Supreme Court observe that all deaths in hospitals would not amount to medical negligence in this case?

The Court observed this while hearing an appeal from an order of the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC). A woman had filed the original case under the Consumer Protection Act alleging that the hospital that treated her husband was medically negligent and deficient in service, which resulted in his death. The NCDRC, after perusing all the medical reports of the patient and the medical records, concluded that the doctors of the hospital performed their duty with a reasonable standard of care. Therefore, there was no deficiency of service in terms of the Consumer Protection Act by the doctors or the hospital.

In the appeal, the Supreme Court upheld the order of the NCDRC.