October 4, 2022

Negligence by professionals

A surgeon with shaky hands under fear of legal action cannot perform a successful operation and a quivering physician cannot administer the end-dose of medicine to his patient.

This article is part of our Medical Negligence Series.

The definition of Negligence

“Negligence is the breach of a duty caused by the 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.”

Negligence in Professions

In the law of negligence, professionals such as lawyers, doctors, architects and others are included in the category of persons professing some special skill or skilled persons generally. Any task which is required to be performed with a special skill would generally be admitted or undertaken to be performed only if the person possesses the requisite skill for performing that task.

Any reasonable man entering into a profession which requires a particular level of learning to be called a professional of that branch, impliedly assures the person dealing with him that the skill which he professes to possess shall be exercised and exercised with reasonable degree of care and caution. He does not assure his client of the result.

A lawyer does not tell his client that the client shall win the case in all circumstances. A physician would not assure the patient of full recovery in every case. A surgeon cannot and does not guarantee that the result of surgery would invariably be beneficial, much less to the extent of 100% for the person operated on. The only assurance which such a professional can give or can be understood to have given by implication is that he is possessed of the requisite skill in that branch of profession which he is practising and while undertaking the performance of the task entrusted to him he would be exercising his skill with reasonable competence. This is all what the person approaching the professional can expect.

Basis for liability

Judged by this standard, a professional may be held liable for negligence on one of 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 necessary for every professional to possess the highest level of expertise in that branch which he practices.

The decision of acceptable standard

In Michael Hyde and Associates v. J.D. Williams & Co. Ltd., [2001] P.N.L.R. 233, CA, Sedley L.J. said that where a profession embraces a range of views as to what is an acceptable standard of conduct, the competence of the defendant is to be judged by the lowest standard that would be regarded acceptable.

Often quoted passage defining negligence by professionals, generally and not necessarily confined to doctors, is to be found in the opinion of McNair J. in Bolam v. Friern Hospital Management Committee, [1957] 1 W.L.R. 582, 586 in the following words:

“Where you get a situation which involves the use of some special skill or competence, then the test as to whether there has been negligence or not is not the test of the man on the top of a Clapham omnibus, because he has not got this special skill. The test is the standard of the ordinary skilled man exercising and professing to have that special skill . . . A man need not possess the highest expert skill; it is well established law that it is sufficient if he exercises the ordinary skill of an ordinary competent man exercising that particular art.”

the water of Bolam test has ever since flown and passed under several bridges, having been cited and dealt with in several judicial pronouncements, one after the other and has continued to be well received by every shore it has touched as neat, clean and well- condensed one.

After a review of various authorities Bingham L.J. in his speech in Eckersley v. Binnie, [1988] 18 Con.L.R. 1, 79 summarised the Bolam test in the following words: –

“From these general statements it follows that a professional man should command the corpus of knowledge which forms part of the professional equipment of the ordinary member of his profession. He should not lag behind other ordinary assiduous and intelligent members of his profession in knowledge of new advances, discoveries and developments in his field. He should have such an awareness as an ordinarily competent practitioner would have of the deficiencies in his knowledge and the limitations on his skill. He should be alert to the hazards and risks in any professional task he undertakes to the extent that other ordinarily competent members of the profession would be alert.

He must bring to any professional task he undertakes no less expertise, skill and care than other ordinarily competent members of his profession would bring, but need bring no more. The standard is that of the reasonable average. The law does not require of a professional man that he be a paragon combining the qualities of polymath and prophet.”

The degree of skill and care required by a medical practitioner is so stated in Halsbury’s Laws of England (Fourth Edition, Vol.30, Para 35): –

“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, and a person is not liable in negligence because someone else of greater skill and knowledge would have prescribed different treatment or operated in a different way; nor is he guilty of negligence if he has acted in accordance with a practice accepted as proper by a responsible body of medical men skilled in that particular art, even though a body of adverse opinion also existed among medical men.

Deviation from normal practice is not necessarily evidence of negligence.

To establish liability on that basis it must be shown

(1) that there is a usual and normal practice;

(2) that the defendant has not adopted it; and

(3) that the course in fact adopted is one no professional man of ordinary skill would have taken had he been acting with ordinary care.”

Above said three tests have also been stated as determinative of negligence in professional practice by Charlesworth & Percy in their celebrated work on Negligence (ibid, para 8.110) In the opinion of Lord Denning, as expressed in Hucks v. Cole, [1968] 118 New LJ 469, a medical practitioner was not to be held liable simply because things went wrong from mischance or misadventure or through an error of judgment in choosing one reasonable course of treatment in preference of another. A medical practitioner would be liable only where his conduct fell below that of the standards of a reasonably competent practitioner in his field.

Test of Professional body

The decision of House of Lords in Maynard v. West Midlands Regional Health Authority, [1985] 1 All ER 635 (HL) by a Bench consisting of five Law Lords has been accepted as having settled the law on the point by holding that it is not enough to show that there is a body of competent professional opinion which considers that decision of the defendant professional was a wrong decision, if there also exists a body of professional opinion, equally competent, which supports the decision as reasonable in the circumstances.

It is not enough to show that subsequent events show that the operation need never have been performed, if at the time the decision to operate was taken, it was reasonable, in the sense that a responsible body of medical opinion would have accepted it as proper.

Lord Scarman who recorded the leading speech with which other four Lords agreed quoted the following words of Lord President (Clyde) in Hunter v. Hanley 1955 SLT 213 at 217, observing that the words cannot be bettered

“In the realm of diagnosis and treatment there is ample scope for genuine difference of opinion and one man clearly is not negligent merely because his conclusion differs from that of other professional men. The true test for establishing negligence in diagnosis or treatment on the part of a doctor is whether he has been proved to be guilty of such failure as no doctor of ordinary skill would be guilty of if acting with ordinary care”.

Lord Scarman added “a doctor who professes to exercise a special skill must exercise the ordinary skill of his speciality. Differences of opinion and practice exist, and will always exist, in the medical as in other professions. There is seldom any one answer exclusive of all others to problems of professional judgment. A court may prefer one body of opinion to the other, but that is no basis for a conclusion of negligence.”

His Lordship further added “that a judge’s ‘preference’ for one body of distinguished professional opinion to another also professionally distinguished is not sufficient to establish negligence in a practitioner whose actions have received the seal of approval of those whose opinions, truthfully expressed, honestly held, were not preferred.”

Approval of Bolam Test

The classical statement of law in Bolam’s case has been widely accepted as decisive of the standard of care required both of professional men generally and medical practitioners in particular. It has been invariably cited with approval before Courts in India and applied to as touchstone to test the pleas of medical negligence.

In tort, it is enough for the defendant to show that the standard of care and the skill attained was that of the ordinary competent medical practitioner exercising an ordinary degree of professional skill. The fact that a defendant charged with negligence acted in accord with the general and approved practice is enough to clear him of the charge.

Two things are pertinent to be noted.

 Firstly, the standard of care, when 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.

Secondly, 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 point of time on which it is suggested as should have been used.

Which does not constitute Negligence

In Jacob Matthew v. state of Punjab (2005), the supreme court noticed that,

“A mere deviation from normal professional practice is not necessarily evidence of negligence. Let it also be noted that a mere accident is not evidence of negligence. So also an error of judgment on the part of a professional is not negligence per se. Higher the acuteness in emergency and higher the complication, more are the chances of error of judgment.

At times, the professional is confronted with making a choice between the devil and the deep sea and he has to choose the lesser evil. The medical professional is often called upon to adopt a procedure which involves higher element of risk, but which he honestly believes as providing greater chances of success for the patient rather than a procedure involving lesser risk but higher chances of failure. Which course is more appropriate to follow, would depend on the facts and circumstances of a given case. The usual practice prevalent nowadays is to obtain the consent of the patient or of the person incharge of the patient if the patient is not be in a position to give consent before adopting a given procedure.”

The court further said that,

“So long as it can be found that the procedure which was in fact adopted was one which was acceptable to medical science as on that date, the medical practitioner cannot be held negligent merely because he chose to follow one procedure and not another and the result was a failure.

No sensible professional would intentionally commit an act or omission which would result in loss or injury to the patient as the professional reputation of the person is at stake. A single failure may cost him dear in his career. Even in civil jurisdiction, the rule of res ipsa loquitur is not of universal application and has to be applied with extreme care and caution to the cases of professional negligence and in particular that of the doctors.

Else it would be counter productive. Simply because a patient has not favourably responded to a treatment given by a physician or a surgery has failed, the doctor cannot be held liable per se by applying the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.

Res ipsa loquitur (things speak itself)

Res ipsa loquitur is a rule of evidence which in reality belongs to the law of torts. Inference as to negligence may be drawn from proved circumstances by applying the rule if the cause of the accident is unknown and no reasonable explanation as to the cause is coming forth from the defendant. In criminal proceedings, the burden of proving negligence as an essential ingredient of the offence lies on the prosecution. Such ingredient cannot be said to have been proved or made out by resorting to the said rule (See Syad Kabar v. State of Karnataka (1980) 1 SCC 30).

Incidentally, it may be noted that in Krishnan and Anr. v. State of Kerala (1996) 10 SCC 508 the Court has observed that there may be a case where the proved facts would themselves speak of sharing of common intention and while making such observation one of the learned judges constituting the Bench has in his concurring opinion merely stated “res ipsa loquitur’. Nowhere it has been stated that the rule has applicability in a criminal case and an inference as to an essential ingredient of an offence can be found proved by resorting to the said rule.

The court in ‘jacob matthew (supra)’ made important observation, when it said,

“A medical practitioner faced with an emergency ordinarily tries his best to redeem the patient out of his suffering. He does not gain anything by acting with negligence or by omitting to do an act. Obviously, therefore, it will be for the complainant to clearly make out a case of negligence before a medical practitioner is charged with or proceeded against criminally. A surgeon with shaky hands under fear of legal action cannot perform a successful operation and a quivering physician cannot administer the end-dose of medicine to his patient.

If the hands be trembling with the dangling fear of facing a criminal prosecution in the event of failure for whatever reason whether attributable to himself or not, neither a surgeon can successfully wield his life-saving scalper to perform an essential surgery, nor can a physician successfully administer the life-saving dose of medicine.

Discretion being better part of valour, a medical professional would feel better advised to leave a terminal patient to his own fate in the case of emergency where the chance of success may be 10% (or so), rather than taking the risk of making a last ditch effort towards saving the subject and facing a criminal prosecution if his effort fails. Such timidity forced upon a doctor would be a disservice to the society.

The purpose of holding a professional liable for his act or omission, if negligent, is to make the life safer and to eliminate the possibility of recurrence of negligence in future. Human body and medical science both are too complex to be easily understood. To hold in favour of existence of negligence, associated with the action or inaction of a medical professional, requires an in-depth understanding of the working of a professional as also the nature of the job and of errors committed by chance, which do not necessarily involve the element of culpability.

At least three weighty considerations can be pointed out which any forum trying the issue of medical negligence in any jurisdiction must keep in mind. These are:

(i) that legal and disciplinary procedures should be properly founded on firm, moral and scientific grounds;

(ii) that patients will be better served if the real causes of harm are properly identified and appropriately acted upon; and

(iii) that many incidents involve a contribution from more than one person, and the tendency is to blame the last identifiable element in the chain of causation the person holding the ‘smoking gun’.”


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