September 30, 2022

Jacob Matthew v. state of Punjab- An analysis

This article is part of our Medical Negligence Series.

The case of ‘Jacob Matthew v. state of Punjab (2005)’, is a landmark case in the field of medical negligence where the court discussed the matter elaborately and also laid down certain guidelines for the same.

Facts of the Case

  • Ashok Kumar Sharma, the respondent no.2, filed a First Information Report with police station, Division No. 3, Ludhiana, whereupon an offence under Section 304A read with Section 34 of the Indian Penal Code was registered.
  • The gist of the information is that on 15.2.1995, the informant’s father, late Jiwan Lal Sharma was admitted as a patient in a private ward of CMC Hospital, Ludhiana. On 22.2.1995 at about 11 p.m., Jiwan Lal felt difficulty in breathing. The complainant’s elder brother, Vijay Sharma who was present in the room contacted the duty nurse, who in her turn called some doctor to attend to the patient. No doctor turned up for about 20 to 25 minutes.
  • Then, Dr. Jacob Mathew, (the appellant) and Dr.Allen Joseph came to the room of the patient. An oxygen cylinder was brought and connected to the mouth of the patient but the breathing problem increased further. The patient tried to get up but the medical staff asked him to remain in the bed. The oxygen cylinder was found to be empty. There was no other gas cylinder available in the room. Vijay Sharma went to the adjoining room and brought a gas cylinder therefrom.
  • However, there was no arrangement to make the gas cylinder functional and in-between, 5 to 7 minutes were wasted. By this time, another doctor came who declared that the patient was dead.

Allegations of the Complainant

The complainant alleged that the death of his father was occurred due to the carelessness of doctors and nurses and non-availability of oxygen cylinder and the empty cylinder was fixed on the mouth of father and his breathing was totally stopped hence his father died.

Journey through the courts

The trial Court

The Judicial Magistrate First Class, Ludhiana framed charges under Section 304A, IPC against the two accused persons, both doctors. Both of them filed a revision in the Court of Sessions Judge submitting that there was no ground for framing charges against them. The revision was dismissed.

High Court

The appellant filed a petition in the High Court under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure praying for quashing of the FIR and all the subsequent proceedings.

It was submitted before the High Court that there was no specific allegation of any act of omission or commission against the accused persons in the entire plethora of documents comprising the challan papers filed by the police against them. The learned single Judge who heard the petition formed an opinion that the plea raised by the appellant was available to be urged in defence at the trial and, therefore, a case for quashing the charge was not made out. the High Court dismissed the petition. An application for recalling the abovesaid order was moved which too was dismissed.

Supreme Court

Feeling aggrieved by these two orders, the appellant filed these appeals by special leave.

Objection of the Appellant

According to the appellant, the deceased Jiwan Lal was suffering from cancer in an advanced stage and as per the information available, he was, in fact, not being admitted by any hospital in the country because his being a case of cancer at terminal stage. He was only required to be kept at home and given proper nursing, food, care and solace coupled with prayers.

But as is apparent from the records, his sons are very influential persons occupying important positions in Government. They requested the hospital authorities that come what may, even on compassionate grounds their father may be admitted in the hospital for regulated medical treatment and proper management of diet.

It was abundantly made clear to the informant and his other relations who had accompanied the deceased that the disease was of such a nature and had attained such gravity, that peace and solace could only be got at home. But the complainant could prevail over the doctors and hospital management and got the deceased admitted as an in-patient.

Nevertheless, the patient was treated with utmost care and caution and given all the required medical assistance by the doctors and para-medical staff. Every conceivable effort was made by all the attending staff comprising of doctors and nurses and other para-medicals to give appropriate medical treatment and the whole staff danced attendance on the patient but what was ordained to happen, did happen.

The complainant and his relations, who were misguided or were under mistaken belief as to the facts, lodged police report against the accused persons wholly unwarranted and uncalled for.

The issues before the Court

As the question of medical negligence arose for consideration, the court issued notice to Medical Council of India to assist the Court at the time of hearing which it has done.

In addition, a registered society ‘People for Better Treatment’, Kolkata; Delhi Medical Council, Delhi Medical Association and Indian Medical Association sought for intervention at the hearing as the issue arising for decision is of vital significance for the medical profession. They too have been heard.

Mainly, the submissions made by the learned counsel for the parties and the interveners have centred around two issues:

(i) Is there a difference in civil and criminal law on the concept of negligence? and

(ii) whether a different standard is applicable for recording a finding of negligence when a professional, in particular, a doctor is to be held guilty of negligence?

Answers of the court

The observations and decisions of the court may be summarised as follows-

(1) Negligence is the breach of a duty caused by omission to do something which a reasonable man guided by those considerations which ordinarily regulate the conduct of human affairs would do, or doing something which a prudent and reasonable man would not do. The definition of negligence as given in Law of Torts, Ratanlal & Dhirajlal (edited by Justice G.P. Singh), holds good.

Negligence becomes actionable on account of injury resulting from the act or omission amounting to negligence attributable to the person sued. The essential components of negligence are three: ‘duty’, ‘breach’ and ‘resulting damage’.

(2) Negligence in the context of medical profession necessarily calls for a treatment with a difference. To infer rashness or negligence on the part of a professional, in particular a doctor, additional considerations apply. A case of occupational negligence is different from one of professional negligence.

A simple lack of care, an error of judgment or an accident, is not proof of negligence on the part of a medical professional. So long as a doctor follows a practice acceptable to the medical profession of that day, he cannot be held liable for negligence merely because a better alternative course or method of treatment was also available or simply because a more skilled doctor would not have chosen to follow or resort to that practice or procedure which the accused followed.

When it comes to the failure of taking precautions what has to be seen is whether those precautions were taken which the ordinary experience of men has found to be sufficient; a failure to use special or extraordinary precautions which might have prevented the particular happening cannot be the standard for judging the alleged negligence.

So also, the standard of care, while assessing the practice as adopted, is judged in the light of knowledge available at the time of the incident, and not at the date of trial. Similarly, when the charge of negligence arises out of failure to use some particular equipment, the charge would fail if the equipment was not generally available at that particular time (that is, the time of the incident) at which it is suggested it should have been used.

(3) A professional may be held liable for negligence on one of the two findings: either he was not possessed of the requisite skill which he professed to have possessed, or, he did not exercise, with reasonable competence in the given case, the skill which he did possess.

The standard to be applied for judging, whether the person charged has been negligent or not, would be that of an ordinary competent person exercising ordinary skill in that profession. It is not possible for every professional to possess the highest level of expertise or skills in that branch which he practices.

A highly skilled professional may be possessed of better qualities, but that cannot be made the basis or the yardstick for judging the performance of the professional proceeded against on indictment of negligence.

(4) The test for determining medical negligence as laid down in Bolam’s case [1957] 1 W.L.R. 582, 586 holds good in its applicability in India.

(5) The jurisprudential concept of negligence differs in civil and criminal law. What may be negligence in civil law may not necessarily be negligence in criminal law. For negligence to amount to an offence, the element of mens rea must be shown to exist. For an act to amount to criminal negligence, the degree of negligence should be much higher i.e. gross or of a very high degree. Negligence which is neither gross nor of a higher degree may provide a ground for action in civil law but cannot form the basis for prosecution.

(6) The word ‘gross’ has not been used in Section 304A of IPC, yet it is settled that in criminal law negligence or recklessness, to be so held, must be of such a high degree as to be ‘gross’. The expression ‘rash or negligent act’ as occurring in Section 304A of the IPC has to be read as qualified by the word ‘grossly’.

(7) To prosecute a medical professional for negligence under criminal law it must be shown that the accused did something or failed to do something which in the given facts and circumstances no medical professional in his ordinary senses and prudence would have done or failed to do. The hazard taken by the accused doctor should be of such a nature that the injury which resulted was most likely imminent.

(8) Res ipsa loquitur is only a rule of evidence and operates in the domain of civil law specially in cases of torts and helps in determining the onus of proof in actions relating to negligence. It cannot be pressed in service for determining per se the liability for negligence within the domain of criminal law. Res ipsa loquitur has, if at all, a limited application in trial on a charge of criminal negligence.

Observations by the Court

While concluding the judgment, the court made important observation regarding the prosecution against medical professional. The court said,

“Indiscriminate prosecution of medical professionals for criminal negligence is counter-productive and does no service or good to the society………

The investigating officer and the private complainant cannot always be supposed to have knowledge of medical science so as to determine whether the act of the accused medical professional amounts to rash or negligent act within the domain of criminal law under Section 304-A of IPC.

The criminal process once initiated subjects the medical professional to serious embarrassment and sometimes harassment. He has to seek bail to escape arrest, which may or may not be granted to him. At the end he may be exonerated by acquittal or discharge but the loss which he has suffered in his reputation cannot be compensated by any standards.

We may not be understood as holding that doctors can never be prosecuted for an offence of which rashness or negligence is an essential ingredient. All that we are doing is to emphasize the need for care and caution in the interest of society; for, the service which the medical profession renders to human beings is probably the noblest of all, and hence there is a need for protecting doctors from frivolous or unjust prosecutions. Many a complainant prefers recourse to criminal process as a tool for pressurizing the medical professional for extracting uncalled for or unjust compensation. Such malicious proceedings have to be guarded against.”

Guidelines by the court

The court emphasised that Statutory Rules or Executive Instructions incorporating certain guidelines need to be framed and issued by the Government of India and/or the State Governments in consultation with the Medical Council of India.

So long as it is not done, the court proposed to lay down certain guidelines for the future which should govern the prosecution of doctors for offences of which criminal rashness or criminal negligence is an ingredient.

  • A private complaint may not be entertained unless the complainant has produced prima facie evidence before the Court in the form of a credible opinion given by another competent doctor to support the charge of rashness or negligence on the part of the accused doctor.
  • The investigating officer should, before proceeding against the doctor accused of rash or negligent act or omission, obtain an independent and competent medical opinion preferably from a doctor in government service qualified in that branch of medical practice who can normally be expected to give an impartial and unbiased opinion applying Bolam’s test to the facts collected in the investigation.
  • A doctor accused of rashness or negligence, may not be arrested in a routine manner (simply because a charge has been levelled against him). Unless his arrest is necessary for furthering the investigation or for collecting evidence or unless the investigation officer feels satisfied that the doctor proceeded against would not make himself available to face the prosecution unless arrested, the arrest may be withheld.

Decision of the court

The court held that,

“we are satisfied that all the averments made in the complaint, even if held to be proved, do not make out a case of criminal rashness or negligence on the part of the accused appellant. It is not the case of the complainant that the accused-appellant was not a doctor qualified to treat the patient whom he agreed to treat.

It is a case of non- availability of oxygen cylinder either because of the hospital having failed to keep available a gas cylinder or because of the gas cylinder being found empty. Then, probably the hospital may be liable in civil law but the accused appellant cannot be proceeded against under Section 304A IPC on the parameters of Bolam’s test.The prosecution of the accused appellant under Section 304A/34 IPC is quashed.”

Reference

Jacob Mathew v. State of Punjab; (2005) 6 SCC 1