New Delhi, Aug. 5: The Supreme Court today handed a lifeline to doctors, ruling that they would not face criminal liability unless found guilty of “gross negligence”.
Minor “negligence” — even if it leads to death — would make them liable to pay compensation, but nothing more.
A division bench of Justices Y.K. Sabharwal and D.M. Dharmadhikari said: “Every mishap or misfortune in a clinic or hospital of a doctor is not a gross act of negligence to try him for an offence of culpable negligence.”
If doctors have to face criminal charges for an error of judgement or minor negligence, they would be more worried about their own safety than giving the best treatment to their patients, the ruling said. “This would lead to shaking the mutual confidence between the doctor and the patient.”
The Indian Medical Association, the largest representative body of doctors which has been campaigning against “criminal prosecution”, described it as a “landmark” judgment. “Finally we feel vindicated,” secretary Moloy Patra said.
But D.K. Majumder, the orthopaedic surgeon blamed for the death of budding cricketer Rajnis Patel last year, was less enthused. “There is nothing to be overjoyed, because tomorrow a different judgment can be delivered.”
Negligence could be “termed ‘criminal’ only when the medical man exhibited a gross lack of competence or inaction and wanton indifference to his patient’s safety and which is found to have arisen from gross ignorance or gross negligence”, the judges said.
They made it clear that to convict a doctor of criminal offence, “the standard should be proof of recklessness and deliberate wrongdoing i.e. a higher degree of morally blameworthy conduct”.
Where a patient’s death results from error of judgment or an accident, no criminal liability should be attached, they said. In such cases, the doctors are liable for torts (breach of duty), which is a civil wrong, and would have to pay compensation.
The bench quashed criminal proceedings against a plastic surgeon, Dr Suresh Gupta, who faced criminal trial for causing the death of one of his patients who had wanted a minor deformity in his nose corrected.
It said the approach of trial courts across the country should be such that if a doctor did not give proper or adequate care to the patient, he should be liable for damages.
Kunal Saha, the US-based doctor who had filed a case against three city physicians for his wife Anuradha’s death in 1998 through drug overdose, said the judgment did not say anything new. “Doctors should not feel they are immune, because it is only in reckless cases that they end up facing criminal charges,” Saha said.
But Sukumar Mukherjee, one of the doctors Saha had taken to court, was expectedly happy. The “judgment is extremely laudable”, he beamed.
A spokesperson for the Association for Hospitals of Eastern India — the conglomerate of top private hospitals in the city — added a word of caution. Doctors should be “more careful while discharging their duties in future”, it said.