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Legal principles applicable in cases of medical negligence |
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Legal principles applicable in cases of medical negligence
Dr KK Aggarwal & Advocate Ira Gupta,  31 May 2020
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“7. In order to appreciate the opinion of the NCDRC, it would be appropriate to lay down the legal principles which would apply in cases of medical negligence.

8. ‘Negligence’ has been defined in the Halsbury’s Laws of England, 4th Edn., Vol. 26 pp.17-18 and extracted in Kusum Sharma & Ors. v. Batra Hospital & Medical Research Centre & Ors. as under:

“22. Negligence. – Duties owed to patient. A person who holds himself out as ready to give medical advice or treatment impliedly undertakes that he is possessed of skill and knowledge for the purpose. Such a person, whether he is a registered medical practitioner or not, who is consulted by a patient, owes him certain duties, namely, a duty of care in deciding whether to undertake the case; a duty of care in deciding what treatment to give; and a duty of care in his administration of that treatment. A breach of any of these duties will support an action for negligence by the patient”

9. A fundamental aspect, which has to be kept in mind is that a doctor cannot be said to be negligent if he is acting in accordance with a practice accepted as proper by a reasonable body of medical men skilled in that particular art, merely because there is a body of such opinion that takes a contrary view (Bolam v. Friern Hospital Management Committee). In the same opinion, it was emphasised that the test of negligence cannot be the test of the man on the top of a Clapham omnibus. In cases of medical negligence, where a special skill or competence is attributed to a doctor, a doctor need not possess the highest expert skill, at the risk of being found negligent, and it would suffice if he exercises the ordinary skill of an ordinary competent man exercising that particular art. A situation, thus, cannot be countenanced, which would be a disservice to the community at large, by making doctors think more of their own safety than of the good of their patients.

10. This Court in another judgment in Jacob Mathew v. State of Punjab dealt with the law of negligence in respect of professionals professing some special skills. Thus, any individual approaching such a skilled person would have a reasonable expectation of a degree of care and caution, but there could be no assurance of the result. A physician, thus, would not assure a full recovery in every case, and the only assurance given, by implication, is that he possesses the requisite skills in the branch of the profession, and while undertaking the performance of his task, he would exercise his skills with reasonable competence. Thus, a liability would only come, if (a) either the person (doctor) did not possess the requisite skills, which he professed to have possessed; or (b) he did not exercise, with reasonable competence in a given case, the skill which he did possess. It was held not to be necessary for every professional to possess the highest level of expertise in that branch in which he practices. In the said opinion, a reference was, once again, made to the Halsbury’s Laws of England as under:

“To establish liability on that basis it must be shown (1) that there is a usual and normal practice; (2) that the defendant has not adopted it; and (3) that the course in fact adopted is one no professional man of ordinary skill would have taken had he been acting with ordinary care.”

11. In Hucks v. Cole, Lord Denning speaking for the Court observed as under:

“A medical practitioner was not to be held liable simply because things went wrong from mischance or misadventure or through an error of judgment in choosing one reasonable course of treatment in preference of another. A medical practitioner would be liable only where his conduct fell below that of the standards of a reasonably competent practitioner in his field.”

12. In para 89 of the judgment in Kusum Sharma & Ors the test had been laid down as under:

“89. On scrutiny of the leading cases of medical negligence both in our country and other countries specially the United Kingdom, some basic principles emerge in dealing with the cases of medical negligence. While deciding whether the medical professional is guilty of medical negligence following well known principles must be kept in view:

  1. Negligence is the breach of a duty exercised by omission to do something which a reasonable man, guided by those considerations which ordinarily regulate the conduct of human affairs, would do, or doing something which a prudent and reasonable man would not do.
  2. Negligence is an essential ingredient of the offence. The negligence to be established by the prosecution must be culpable or gross and not the negligence merely based upon an error of judgment.
  3. The medical professional is expected to bring a reasonable degree of skill and knowledge and must exercise a reasonable degree of care. Neither the very highest nor a very low degree of care and competence judged in the light of the particular circumstances of each case is what the law requires.
  4. A medical practitioner would be liable only where his conduct fell below that of the standard so far reasonably competent practitioner in his field.
  5. In the realm of diagnosis and treatment there is scope for genuine difference of opinion and one professional doctor is clearly not negligent merely because his conclusion differs from that of other professional doctor.
  6. The medical professional is often called upon to adopt a procedure which involves higher element of risk, but which he honestly believes as providing greater chances of success for the patient rather than a procedure involving lesser risk but higher chances of failure. Just because a professional looking to the gravity of illness has taken higher element of risk to redeem the patient out of his/her suffering which did not yield the desired result may not amount to negligence.
  7. Negligence cannot be attributed to a doctor so long as he performs his duties with reasonable skill and competence. Merely because the doctor chooses one course of action in preference to the other one available, he would not be liable if the course of action chosen by him was acceptable to the medical profession.
  8. It would not be conducive to the efficiency of the medical profession if no doctor could administer medicine without a halter round his neck.
  9. It is our bounden duty and obligation of the civil society to ensure that the medical professionals are not unnecessarily harassed or humiliated so that they can perform their professional duties without fear and apprehension.
  10. The medical practitioners at times also have to be saved from such a class of complainants who use criminal process as a tool for pressurizing the medical professionals/hospitals particularly private hospitals or clinics for extracting uncalled for compensation. Such malicious proceedings deserve to be discarded against the medical practitioners.
  11. The medical professionals are entitled to get protection so long as they perform their duties with reasonable skill and competence and in the interest of the patients. The interest and welfare of the patients have to be paramount for the medical professionals.”

Source: Vinod Jain vs Santokba Durlabhji Memorial Hospital & Anr (Civil Appeal No. 2024 of 2019 Arising out of SLP(C) No.32721/2017, dated February 25, 2019)

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