This article is a part of our Medical Negligence Series.

The influence exhorted by a doctor is unique. The relationship between the doctor and the patient is not always equally balanced. The attitude of a patient is poised between trust in the learning of another and the general distress of one who is in a state of uncertainty and such ambivalence naturally leads to a sense of inferiority and it is, therefore, the function medical ethics to ensure that the superiority of the doctor is not abused in any manner.

It is a great mistake to think that doctors and hospitals are easy targets for the dissatisfied patient. it is indeed very difficult to raise an action of negligence. Not only there are practical difficulties in linking the injury sustained with the medical treatment but also it is still more difficult to establish the standard of care in medical negligence of which a complaint can be made.

All these factors together with the sheer expense of bringing a legal action and the denial of legal aid to all but the poorest operate to limit medical litigation in this country. With the emergence of the Consumer Protection Act no doubt in some cases patients have been able to establish the negligence of the doctors rendering service and in taking compensation thereof but the same is very few in number.

In recent days there has been increasing pressure on hospital facilities, falling standard of professional competence and in addition to all, the ever increasing complexity of therapeutic and diagnostic methods and all this together are responsible for the medical negligence. That apart there has been a growing awareness in the public mind to bring the negligence of such professional doctors to light.

Very often in a claim for compensation arising out of medical negligence a plea is taken that it is a case of bona fide mistake which under certain circumstances may be excusable, but a mistake which would tantamount to negligence cannot be pardoned.

In the former case a court can accept that ordinary human fallibility precludes the liability while in the latter the conduct of the defendant is considered to have gone beyond the bounds of what is expected of the reasonably skill of a competent doctor.

Whitehouse v Jordan

In the case of Whitehouse v Jordan and another, [1981][1], an obstetrician had pulled too hard in a trial of forceps delivery and had thereby caused the plaintiff’s head to become wedged with consequent asphyxia and brain damage. The trial judge had held the action of the defendant to be negligent but this judgment had been reversed by Lord Denning, in the Court of Appeal, emphasising that an error of judgment would not tantamount to negligence.

When the said matter came before the House of Lords, the views of Lord Denning on the error of judgment was rejected and it was held that an error of judgment could be negligence if it is an error which would not have been made by a reasonably competent professional man acting with ordinary care. Lord Fraser pointed out thus;

“The true position is that an error of judgment may, or may not, be negligent; it depends on the nature of the error. If it is one that would not have been made by a reasonably competent professional man profession to have the standard and type of skill that the defendant holds himself out as having, and acting with ordinary care, then it is negligence. If, on the other hand, it is an error that such a man, acting with ordinary care, might have made, then it is not negligence.”

Gross Medical Mistake

Gross medical mistake will always result in a finding of negligence.

  • Use of wrong drug or wrong gas during the course of anaesthetic will frequently lead to the imposition of liability and in some situations even the principle of Res ipsa loquitur can be applied.
  • Even delegation of responsibility to another may amount to negligence in certain circumstances.
  • A consultant could be negligent where he delegates the responsibility to his junior with the knowledge that the junior was incapable of performing of his duties properly.


M/S. Spring Meadows Hospital & Anr vs Harjol Ahluwalia; 1998(2) SCALE 456 (SC)

[1] 1 ALL ER 267