SC raises bar: Can’t act against doctors until ‘prima facie’ negligence established

Police and courts — both criminal and consumer — must establish “prime facie guilt” before proceeding against a doctor accused of medical negligence...

Written by Express News Service | New Delhi | Published: February 18, 2009 1:39:35 am

Police and courts — both criminal and consumer — must establish “prime facie guilt” before proceeding against a doctor accused of medical negligence,the Supreme Court has ruled.

“The law is a watchdog and not a bloodhound,and as long as doctors do their duty with reasonable care they will not be held liable even if their treatment was unsuccessful,” observed the bench comprising Justices Markandeya Katju and R M Lodha. The bench felt all doctors can’t be accused of lacking integrity or competence “just because of some bad apples”.

Taking the cue from a 2004 judgment,the bench passed stern directions,which it felt was “necessary to avoid harassment to doctors who may not ultimately be found negligent”.

The medical fraternity welcomed the judgment,and doctors expressed hope that it would allow them to work without fear of facing “unreasonable” allegations.

“Sometimes despite their best efforts,the treatment of a doctor fails. This does not mean that the doctor or the surgeon must be held to be guilty of medical negligence,unless there is some strong evidence to suggest that he is,” the court observed while setting aside a National Consumer Commission order dated February 23,2002.

The apex consumer forum had found Dr Martin F D’Souza of Mumbai’s Nanavati Hospital guilty of giving an antibiotic overdose,which resulted in the patient losing his hearing. The SC,however,noted that the doctor had actually saved the patient’s life,with the hearing impairment being the drug’s side effect. “Life is surely more important than side effects,” Justice Katju said. “Courts and consumer fora are not experts in medical science,and must not substitute their own views over that of specialists,” Justice Katju said.

Whenever a complaint is received against a doctor or a hospital,the matter must be referred to a competent doctor or a panel of doctors. “Only after that doctor or committee reports that there is a prima facie case of medical negligence,should the notice be issued,” the bench said.

The judgment warned the police “not to arrest or harass doctors” unless the facts prove so or “otherwise policemen will themselves have to face legal action.”

Dr Anil Bansal,secretary,Delhi Medical Association,welcomed the judgment. “It has to be understood that whenever a patient agrees to go for medical treatment,there is a chance of multiple outcomes. If the patient does not get cured,it cannot always be the doctor’s fault. Every careless act of the medical man cannot also be termed as ‘criminal’,” he said.

Dr Anoop Misra of Fortis Hospitals recalled that doctors have been attacked by patients’ families without first ascertaining facts. “Currently action is taken against doctors on the basis of public opinion. It is high time that basic rules are laid down about ways to deal with medical negligence cases.”

Dr DK Sharma,medical superintendent,AIIMS,agreed. “This judgment will definitely help doctors work without the fear of being unreasonably blamed. It is necessary that a doctor should not be held criminally responsible for a patient’s death unless proved beyond doubt that he or she showed complete disregard for the life of the patient,” Dr Sharma said.

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