The Supreme Court has absolved a doctor from Maharashtra of the charge of medical negligence after 20 years of an incident in which a road accident victim succumbed to injuries at a hospital. The apex court relied on its earlier verdict to say that in cases where negligence is alleged against professionals like doctors the court should be careful before instituting criminal proceedings.
The court said it has been held that “it is not possible for any doctor to assure or guarantee that the result of treatment would invariably be positive and the only assurance which a professional can give is that he is professionally competent, has requisite skill and has undertaken the task entrusted to him with reasonable care”.
Referring to the earlier judgement, a bench of Justices M B Lokur and Deepak Gupta set aside the order of Nagpur bench of Bombay High Court by which criminal proceedings have initiated against the doctor who was a surgeon on call at a hospital where the victim was admitted.
“Applying the law laid down in a case, we are of the view that this is not a case where the appellant should face trial especially when 20 years have already elapsed,” it said. The doctor on August 29, 1997, when called to the Irvin Hospital, Amravati to attend a victim, examined him and made a note that a physician be called after finding the patient suffering from abdominial pain.
The main allegation against the surgeon was that she did not wait for the physician to arrive especially when the patient was suffering from Haemophilia, a condition that affects the blood’s ability to clot. As a result the victim died the very next day and the physician she had called never turned up. A complaint was subsequently lodged in the police station, wherein it was alleged by the brother of the deceased that the patient died as a result of negligence of the three doctors of hospital.
In a separate departmental inquiry, three doctors were held negligent in performing their duties and one was debarred annual increment as penalty; the surgeon was permanently prohibited from entering Irvin Hospital, Amravati, and third doctor was transferred. The surgeon then filed a plea for quashing of charge against her, but her petition was rejected by the High Court on the ground that the question whether inaction in her part in leaving the deceased at about 11 PM and not waiting for the physician to turn up, amounted to rash and negligent act on her behalf, would be decided during trial.
The apex court, while allowing the appeal, said the only allegation against the appellant (surgeon) is that she left the patient but being a surgeon on call, she came to the hospital when she was called and examined the patient. “As per her judgment, she could find no evidence of bleeding or injury and, therefore, she had noted that a physician be called. Thereafter, she left the hospital at about 11 PM. True it is that she did not wait for physician to come, but it can be assumed that she would have expected that the physician would come soon,” the bench said.
“This may be an error in judgment but is definitely not a rash and negligent act contemplated under section 304-A of IPC. It is nobody’s case that she was called again by the nursing staff on duty. If the condition of the patient had worsened between 11 PM and 5 AM, the next morning, the nursing staff could have again called for the appellant, but they did not do so,” it said. The bench said, “In the facts and circumstance of this case, it cannot be said that the appellant is guilty of criminal negligence. At best it is an error of judgment”.