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SC: doctor not to blame for patient’s death
S.S. Negi
Our Legal Correspondent

New Delhi, August 5
In a judgement of far-reaching consequences for people in the medical profession, the Supreme Court has ruled that a doctor cannot be held liable for criminal negligence for the death of a patient during the treatment due to error of judgement or an accident.

“Where a patient’s death results merely from the error of judgement or an accident, no criminal liability should be attached to it. Mere inadvertence or some degree of want of adequate care and caution might create civil liability but would not suffice to hold him criminally liable,” a division Bench of Mr Justice Y.K. Sabharwal and Mr Justice D.M. Dharmadhikari ruled.

Exonerating capital’s plastic surgeon Suresh Gupta in a medico-negligence case filed against him under Section 304 A of the IPC, the court said to convict a doctor for such an offence, the prosecution had to come out with a case of high degree of negligence on his part.

Elaborating further, the court said to establish the criminal liability against a doctor for causing the death of his patient during treatment, “the act complained must show negligence or rashness of such a high degree as to indicate a mental state which can be described as totally apathetic towards the patient. Such gross negligence alone is punishable.”

The Bench said such approach by lower courts in the matter of fixing criminal liability on doctors was necessary so that the hazards of medical men in medical profession being exposed to civil liability may not unreasonably extend to criminal liability and expose them to the risk of landing themselves in prison.

A medical man could not be proceeded against for every mishap or death during treatment. “Criminal prosecutions of doctors without adequate medical opinion pointing to their guilt would be doing a great disservice to the community at large because if the courts were to impose criminal liability on hospitals and doctors for everything that goes wrong, the doctors would be more worried about their own safety than giving all the best treatment to their patients,” the court said.

Cautioning lower courts to tread with care in such cases because it was a “difficult task” for them to weigh the degree of carelessness and negligence and to decide between civil and criminal liability, the apex court said “this would lead to shaking of the mutual confidence between the doctor and a patient.”

“After examining the medical papers accompanying the complaint, we find that no case of recklessness or gross negligence has been made out against the doctor to compel him to face the trial for offence under Section 404 A of the IPC,” Justice Dharmadhikari said.

A case against Dr Gupta and an assisting anesthetist was filed in April, 1994 after a patient operated upon by him for removing “nasal deformity” had died. The case against anesthetist was abated later because he had died during the trial proceedings.

According to the complaint lodged against Dr Gupta, it was alleged that the patient had died on the same day of the operation on April 18, 1994 and the post-mortem examination had reported the cause of death as “blockage of respiratory passage by aspirated blood consequent upon the surgical incised margin of nasal septum”.

The prosecution said from the post-mortem examination report and the opinion of three medical experts of a board constituted to investigate the case by the Delhi Government, it was clear “there was negligence in not putting a cuffed endo-tracheal tube of proper size and in a manner so as to prevent aspiration of blood blocking the respiratory passage.”

On the basis of the report, a court of magistrate had decided to proceed against Dr Gupta under Section 304 of the IPC.

The High Court had also rejected his plea for quashing of the trial proceedings against him.
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