This article is part of our Medical Negligence Series.

The criminal law has invariably placed the medical professionals on a pedestal different from ordinary mortals. The Indian Penal Code enacted as far back as in the year 1860 sets out a few vocal examples.


Section 88 in the Chapter on General Exceptions provides exemption for acts not intended to cause death, done by consent in good faith for person’s benefit.

Section 92 provides for exemption for acts done in good faith for the benefit of a person without his consent though the acts cause harm to a person and that person has not consented to suffer such harm.

There are four exceptions listed in the Section which is not necessary in this context to deal with.

Section 93 saves from criminality certain communications made in good faith.

To these provisions are appended the following illustrations: –

  • Section 88 A, a surgeon, knowing that a particular operation is likely to cause the death of Z, who suffers under a painful complaint, but not intending to cause Z’s death and intending in good faith, Z’s benefit, performs that operation on Z, with Z’s consent. A has committed no offence.
  • Section 92- Z is thrown from his horse, and is insensible. A, a surgeon, finds that Z requires to be trepanned. A, not intending Z’s death, but in good faith, for Z’s benefit, performs the trepan before Z recovers his power of judging for himself. A has committed no offence.
  • A, a surgeon, sees a child suffer an accident which is likely to prove fatal unless an operation be immediately performed. There is no time to apply to the child’s guardian. A performs the operation in spite of the entreaties of the child, intending, in good faith, the child’s benefit. A has committed no offence.
  • Section 93- A, a surgeon, in good faith, communicates to a patient his opinion that he cannot live. The patient dies in consequence of the shock. A has committed no offence, though he knew it to be likely that the communication might cause the patient’s death.

Lord Macaulay on these sections of IPC

It is interesting to note what Lord Macaulay had himself to say about Indian Penal Code. We are inclined to quote a few excerpts from his speech from “Speeches and Poems with the Report and Notes on the Indian Penal Code” by Lord Macaulay (Houghton, Mifflin and Company, published in 1874)

  • It will be admitted that when an act is in itself innocent, to punish the person who does it because bad consequences, which no human wisdom could have foreseen, have followed from it, would be in the highest degree barbarous and absurd.” (P.419)
  • “To punish as a murderer every man who, while committing a heinous offence, causes death by pure misadventure, is a course which evidently adds nothing to the security of human life. No man can so conduct himself as to make it absolutely certain that he shall not be so unfortunate as to cause the death of a fellow-creature. The utmost that he can do is to abstain from every thing which is at all likely to cause death.
  • No fear of punishment can make him do more than this; and therefore, to punish a man who has done this can add nothing to the security of human life. The only good effect which such punishment can produce will be to deter people from committing any of those offences which turn into murders what are in themselves mere accidents. It is in fact an addition to the punishment of those offences, and it is an addition made in the very worst way.” (p.421)
  • “When a person engaged in the commission of an offence causes death by rashness or negligence, but without either intending to cause death, or thinking it likely that he shall cause death, we propose that he shall be liable to the punishment of the offence which he was engaged in committing, superadded to the ordinary punishment of involuntary culpable homicide.

Roscoe’s Law of Evidence

The following statement of law on criminal negligence by reference to surgeons, doctors etc. and unskillful treatment contained in Roscoe’s Law of Evidence (Fifteenth Edition) is classic:

“Where a person, acting as a medical man, &c., whether licensed or unlicensed, is so negligent in his treatment of a patient that death results, it is manslaughter if the negligence was so great as to amount to a crime, and whether or not there was such a degree of negligence is a question in each case for the jury.

 “In explaining to juries the test which they should apply to determine whether the negligence in the particular case amounted or did not amount to a crime, judges have used many epithets, such as ‘culpable,’ ‘criminal’, ‘gross’, ‘wicked’, ‘clear’, ‘complete.’ But whatever epithet be used and whether an epithet be used or not, in order to establish criminal liability the facts must be such that, in the opinion of the jury, the negligence of the accused went beyond a mere matter of compensation between subjects and showed such disregard for the life and safety of others as to amount to a crime against the State and conduct deserving punishment.” (p. 848-849)

“whether he be licensed or unlicensed, if he display gross ignorance, or gross inattention, or gross rashness, in his treatment, he is criminally responsible. Where a person who, though not educated as an accoucheur, had been in the habit of acting as a man-midwife, and had unskilfully treated a woman who died in childbirth, was indicted for the murder, L. Ellenborough said that there was no evidence of murder, but the jury might convict of man-slaughter. “To substantiate that charge the prisoner must have been guilty of criminal misconduct, arising either from the grossest ignorance or the [most] criminal inattention. One or other of these is necessary to make him guilty of that criminal negligence and misconduct which is essential to make out a case of manslaughter.” (p.849)

A review of Indian decisions on criminal negligence

We would like to preface this discussion with the law laid down by the Privy Council in John Oni Akerele v. The King AIR 1943 PC 72.

A duly qualified medical practitioner gave to his patient the injection of Sobita which consisted of sodium bismuth tartrate as given in the British Pharmacopoea. However, what was administered was an overdose of Sobita. The patient died. The doctor was accused of manslaughter, reckless and negligent act. He was convicted.

The matter reached in appeal before the House of Lords. Their Lordships quashed the conviction. On a review of judicial opinion and an illuminating discussion on the points which are also relevant before us, what their Lordships have held can be summed up as under: –

(i) That a doctor is not criminally responsible for a patient’s death unless his negligence or incompetence went beyond a mere matter of compensation between subjects and showed such disregard for life and safety of others as to amount to a crime against the State.;

(ii) That the degree of negligence required is that it should be gross, and that neither a jury nor a court can transform negligence of a lesser degree into gross negligence merely by giving it that appellation. There is a difference in kind between the negligence which gives a right to compensation and the negligence which is a crime.

(iii) It is impossible to define culpable or criminal negligence, and it is not possible to make the distinction between actionable negligence and criminal negligence intelligible, except by means of illustrations drawn from actual judicial opinion.

The most favourable view of the conduct of an accused medical man has to be taken, for it would be most fatal to the efficiency of the medical profession if no one could administer medicine without a halter round his neck.”

Their Lordships refused to accept the view that criminal negligence was proved merely because a number of persons were made gravely ill after receiving an injection of Sobita from the appellant coupled with a finding that a high degree of care was not exercised. Their Lordships also refused to agree with the thought that merely because too strong a mixture was dispensed once and a number of persons were made gravely ill, a criminal degree of negligence was proved. The question of degree has always been considered as relevant to a distinction between negligence in civil law and negligence in criminal law.

In Kurban Hussein Mohamedalli Rangawalla v. State of Maharashtra (1965) 2 SCR 622, while dealing with Section 304A of IPC, the following statement of law by Sir Lawrence Jenkins in Emperor v. Omkar Rampratap 4 Bom LR 679, was cited with approval: –

“To impose criminal liability under Section 304-A, Indian Penal Code, it is necessary that the death should have been the direct result of a rash and negligent act of the accused, and that act must be the proximate and efficient cause without the intervention of another’s negligence. It must be the causa causans; it is not enough that it may have been the causa sine qua non.”

K.N. Wanchoo, J. (as he then was), speaking for the Court, observed that the above said view of the law has been generally followed by High Courts in India and was the correct view to take of the meaning of Section 304A. The same view has been reiterated in Kishan Chand & Anr. v. The State of Haryana (1970) 3 SCC 904.

In Juggankhan v. The State of Madhya Pradesh (1965) 1 SCR 14, the accused, a registered Homoeopath, administered 24 drops of stramonium and a leaf of dhatura to the patient suffering from guinea worm. The accused had not studied the effect of such substances being administered to a human being. The poisonous contents of the leaf of dhatura, were not satisfactorily established by the prosecution.

supreme Court exonerated the accused of the charge under Section 302 IPC. However, on a finding that stramonium and dhatura leaves are poisonous and in no system of medicine, except perhaps Ayurvedic system, the dhatura leaf is given as cure for guinea worm, the act of the accused who prescribed poisonous material without studying their probable effect was held to be a rash and negligent act.

It would be seen that the profession of a Homoeopath which the accused claimed to profess did not permit use of the substance administered to the patient. The accused had no knowledge of the effect of such substance being administered and yet he did so.

In this background, the inference of the accused being guilty of rash and negligent act was drawn against him.

The principle which emerges is that a doctor who administers a medicine known to or used in a particular branch of medical profession impliedly declares that he has knowledge of that branch of science and if he does not, in fact, possess that knowledge, he is prima facie acting with rashness or negligence.

Dr. Laxman Balkrishna Joshi v. Dr. Trimbak Bapu Godbole and Anr. (1969) 1 SCR 206 was a case under Fatal Accidents Act, 1855. It does not make a reference to any other decided case. The duties which a doctor owes to his patients came up for consideration.

The Court held that a person who holds himself out ready to give medical advice and treatment impliedly undertakes that he is possessed of skill and knowledge for that purpose. Such a person when consulted by a patient owes him certain duties, viz., a duty of care in deciding whether to undertake the case, a duty of care in deciding what treatment to be given or a duty of care in the administration of that treatment. A breach of any of those duties gives a right of action for negligence to the patient.

The practitioner must bring to his task a reasonable degree of skill and knowledge and must exercise a reasonable degree of care. Neither the very highest nor a very low degree of care and competence judged in the light of the particular circumstances of each case is what the law requires. The doctor no doubt has a discretion in choosing treatment which he proposes to give to the patient and such discretion is relatively ampler in cases of emergency. In this case, the death of patient was caused due to shock resulting from reduction of the fracture attempted by doctor without taking the elementary caution of giving anaesthetic to the patient.

The doctor was held guilty of negligence and liability for damages in civil law. We hasten to add that criminal negligence or liability under criminal law was not an issue before the Court as it did not arise and hence was not considered.

Indian Medical Association v. V.P. Shantha and Ors. (1995) 6 SCC 651 is a three-Judge Bench decision. The principal issue which arose for decision by the Court was whether a medical practitioner renders ‘service’ and can be proceeded against for ‘deficiency in service’ before a forum under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986.

The Court dealt with how a ‘profession’ differs from an ‘occupation’ especially in the context of performance of duties and hence the occurrence of negligence. The Court noticed that medical professionals do not enjoy any immunity from being sued in contract or tort (i.e. in civil jurisdiction) on the ground of negligence.

However, in the observation made in the context of determining professional liability as distinguished from occupational liability, the Court has referred to authorities, in particular, Jackson & Powell and have so stated the principles, partly quoted from the authorities:

“In the matter of professional liability professions differ from occupations for the reason that professions operate in spheres where success cannot be achieved in every case and very often success or failure depends upon factors beyond the professional man’s control.

In devising a rational approach to professional liability which must provide proper protection to the consumer while allowing for the factors mentioned above, the approach of the Courts is to require that professional men should possess a certain minimum degree of competence and that they should exercise reasonable care in the discharge of their duties. In general, a professional man owes to his client a duty in tort as well as in contract to exercise reasonable care in giving advice or performing services. (See: Jackson & Powell on Professional Negligence, 3rd Edn., paras 1-04, 1-05, and 1-56).”

In Poonam Verma v. Ashwin Patel and Ors., (1996) 4 SCC 332 a doctor registered as medical practitioner and entitled to practice in Homoeopathy only, prescribed an allopathic medicine to the patient. The patient died.

The doctor was held to be negligent and liable to compensate the wife of the deceased for the death of her husband on the ground that the doctor who was entitled to practice in homoeopathy only, was under a statutory duty not to enter the field of any other system of medicine and since he trespassed into a prohibited field and prescribed the allopathic medicine to the patient causing the death, his conduct amounted to negligence per se actionable in civil law.

Dr. Laxman Balkrishna Joshi’s case (supra) was followed. Vide para 16, the test for determining whether there was negligence on the part of a medical practitioner as laid down in Bolam’s case (supra) was cited and approved.

In Achutrao Haribhau Khodwa and Ors. v. State of Maharashtra and Ors. (1996) 2 SCC 634 the Court noticed that in the very nature of medical profession, skills differs from doctor to doctor and more than one alternative course of treatment are available, all admissible. Negligence cannot be attributed to a doctor so long as he is performing his duties to the best of his ability and with due care and caution. Merely because the doctor chooses one course of action in preference to the other one available, he would not be liable if the course of action chosen by him was acceptable to the medical profession.

It was a case where a mop was left inside the lady patient’s abdomen during an operation. Peritonitis developed which led to a second surgery being performed on her, but she could not survive. Liability for negligence was fastened on the surgeon because no valid explanation was forthcoming for the mop having been left inside the abdomen of the lady. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur was held applicable ‘in a case like this’.

M/s Spring Meadows Hospital and Anr. v. Harjol Ahluwalia through K.S. Ahluwalia and Anr. (1998) 4 SCC 39 is again a case of liability for negligence by a medical professional in civil law. It was held that an error of judgment is not necessarily negligence. The Court referred to the decision in Whitehouse & Jorden, [1981] 1 ALL ER 267, and cited with approval the following statement of law contained in the opinion of Lord Fraser determining when an error of judgment can be termed as negligence: –

“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 professing 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.”


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