A doctor from Maharastra has been absolved by the Supreme Court of a medical negligence charge 20 years after it was made. The incident that spurred the accusation was a road accident in which a victim succumbed to injuries at the hospital.

The Supreme Court relied on its earlier verdict, saying that for cases in which negligence is alleged against professionals like doctors, the courts ought to be careful before criminal proceedings are instituted.

As per the court, it’s 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.”

A bench set aside the order of the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court referring to the earlier judgement. The High Court’s order initiated the criminal proceedings against the doctor. The doctor was a surgeon on call at the hospital where the victim got 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.

A road accident

The accident in question happened on August 29, 1997.

On that day, the doctor got called to the Irvin Hospital in Amravati to attend to the victim. After examining him, she made a note that a physician must be called. This she noted once it was found that the patient suffered from abdominal pain.

The key allegation raised against the surgeon was that she didn’t wait for the physician to arrive. The patient suffered from Haemophilia, which made it even more important for the surgeon to wait for the physician-as per the accusation.

The patient died the very next day. The physician whom the surgeon called never turned up.

Subsequently, a complaint got lodged in the police station. The deceased patient’s brother alleged that the patient’s death was the result of negligence on the part of three doctors in the hospital.

A department inquiry that was held separately from the legal enquiry resulted in the three doctors being held negligent while performing their duties. One of them was debarred the annual increment as penalty while the surgeon got permanently prohibited from entering Irvin Hospital. The third doctor was transferred from the hospital.

The surgeon making a plea

But the story didn’t end there.

For the surgeon filed a plea, hoping to quash the charge raised against her. However, the High Court rejected the plea. The rejection happened on the ground that whether her inaction(not waiting for the physician to arrive) amounted to a negligent act or not could only be decided during trial.

The Supreme Court, on the other hand, even though allowed the appeal, said that the sole allegation against the surgeon was that she left the patient. But, it noted that the surgeon did come to the hospital when she was called to examine 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”.

Image credits: supremecourtofindia.nic.in

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