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Medical negligence liability under the consumer protection act: A review of judicial perspective


Lately, Indian society is experiencing a growing awareness regarding patient’s rights. This trend is clearly discernible from the recent spurt in litigation concerning medical professional or establishment liability, claiming redressal for the suffering caused due to medical negligence, vitiated consent, and breach of confidentiality arising out of the doctor-patient relationship. The patient-centered initiative of rights protection is required to be appreciated in the economic context of the rapid decline of State spending and massive private investment in the sphere of the health care system and the Indian Supreme Court’s painstaking efforts to Constitutionalize a right to health as a fundamental right. As of now, the adjudicating process with regard to medical professional liability, be it in a consumer forum or a regular civil or criminal court, considers common law principles relating to negligence, vitiated consent, and breach of confidentiality. However, it is equally essential to note that the protection of patient’s right shall not be at the cost of professional integrity and autonomy. There is definitely a need for striking a delicate balance. Otherwise, the consequences would be inexplicable.

In the context of obtaining processes, there is a deserving need for a two-pronged approach. On one hand, the desirable direction points towards identification of minimum reasonable standards in light of the social, economical, and cultural context that would facilitate the adjudicators to decide issues of professional liability on an objective basis. On the other hand, such identification enables the medical professionals to internalize such standards in their day-to-day discharge of professional duties, which would hopefully prevent to a large extent the scenario of protection of patient’s rights in a litigative atmosphere. In the long run, the present adversarial placement of doctor and the patient would undergo a transformation to the advantage of the patient, doctor, and society at large.


Who can file a complaint?

A consumer or any recognized consumer association, i.e., voluntary consumer association registered under the Companies Act, 1956 or any other law for the time being in force, whether the consumer is a member of such association or not, or the central or state government.

Who is a consumer?

A consumer is a person who hires or avails of any services for a consideration that has been paid or promised or partly paid and partly promised or under any system of deferred payment and includes any beneficiary of such services other than the person hires or avails of the services for consideration paid or promised, or under any system of deferred payment, when such services are availed of with the approval of the first mentioned person. This definition is wide enough to include a patient who merely promises to pay.

What is a complaint?

A complaint is an allegation in writing made by a Complainant, i.e., a consumer that he or she has suffered loss or damage as a result of any deficiency of service.

What is deficiency of service?

Deficiency of service means any fault, imperfection, shortcoming, or inadequacy in the quality, nature, or manner of performance that is required to be maintained by or under any law for the time being in force or has been undertaken to be performed by a person in pursuance of a contract or otherwise in relation to any service.

Where is a complaint filed?

A complaint can be filed in 1) the District Forum if the value of services and compensation claimed is less than 20 lakh rupees, 2) before the State Commission, if the value of the goods or services and the compensation claimed does not exceed more than 1 crore rupees, or 3) in the National Commission, if the value of the goods or services and the compensation exceeds more than 1 crore rupees.

What is the cost involved in filing a complaint?

There is a minimal fee for filing a complaint before the district consumer Redressal forums.

Is there any provision for appeal?

An appeal against the decision of the District Forum can be filed before the State Commission. An appeal will then go from the State Commission to the National Commission and from the National Commission to the Supreme Court. The time limit within which the appeal should be filed is 30 days from the date of the decision in all cases.

What are the powers of the consumer redressal forums?

The forums have a variety of powers. They are 1) the summoning and enforcing of the attendance of any defendant or witness and examining the witness under oath, 2) the discovery and production of any document or other material object producible as evidence, 3) the reception of evidence on affidavits, 4) the summoning of any expert evidence or testimony, 5) the requisitioning of the report of the concerned analysis or test from the appropriate laboratory or from any other relevant source, 6) issuing of any commission for the examination of any witness, and 7) any other matter which may be prescribed.

How does adjudication of liability take place?

The process before the competent forum will be set in motion in the following manner. When the Complainant files a written complaint, the forum, after admitting the complaint, sends a written notice to the opposite party asking for a written version to be submitted within 30 days. Thereafter, subsequent to proper scrutiny, the forum would ask for either filing of an affidavit or production of evidence in the form of interrogatories, expert evidence, medical literature, and judicial decisions.


Negligence is simply the failure to exercise due care. The three ingredients of negligence are as follows:

The defendant owes a duty of care to the plaintiff.

The defendant has breached this duty of care.

The plaintiff has suffered an injury due to this breach.

Medical negligence is no different. It is only that in a medical negligence case, most often, the doctor is the defendant.

When does a duty arise?

It is well known that a doctor owes a duty of care to his patient. This duty can either be a contractual duty or a duty arising out of tort law. In some cases, however, though a doctor-patient relationship is not established, the courts have imposed a duty upon the doctor. In the words of the Supreme Court “every doctor, at the governmental hospital or elsewhere, has a professional obligation to extend his services with due expertise for protecting life” (Parmanand Kataria vs. Union of India. These cases are however, clearly restricted to situations where there is danger to the life of the person. Impliedly, therefore, in other circumstances the doctor does not owe a duty.

What is the duty owed?

The duty owed by a doctor towards his patient, in the words of the Supreme Court is to “bring to his task a reasonable degree of skill and knowledge” and to exercise “a reasonable degree of care” (Laxman vs. Trimback. The doctor, in other words, does not have to adhere to the highest or sink to the lowest degree of care and competence in the light of the circumstance. A doctor, therefore, does not have to ensure that every patient who comes to him is cured. He has to only ensure that he confers a reasonable degree of care and competence.

Reasonable degree of care

Reasonable degree of care and skill means that the degree of care and competence that an “ordinary competent member of the profession who professes to have those skills would exercise in the circumstance in question.” At this stage, it may be necessary to note the distinction between the standard of care and the degree of care. The standard of care is a constant and remains the same in all cases. It is the requirement that the conduct of the doctor be reasonable and need not necessarily conform to the highest degree of care or the lowest degree of care possible. The degree of care is a variable and depends on the circumstance. It is used to refer to what actually amounts to reasonableness in a given situation.

Thus, though the same standard of care is expected from a generalist and a specialist, the degree of care would be different. In other words, both are expected to take reasonable care but what amounts to reasonable care with regard to the specialist differs from what amount of reasonable care is standard for the generalist. In fact, the law expects the specialist to exercise the ordinary skill of this speciality and not of any ordinary doctor. Though the courts have accepted the need to impose a higher degree of duty on a specialist, they have refused to lower it in the case of a novice.

Another question that arises is with regard to the knowledge that is expected from a doctor. Should it include the latest developments in the field, hence require constant updating or is it enough to follow what has been traditionally followed? It has been recognized by the courts that what amounts to reasonableness changes with time. The standard, as stated clearly herein before requires that the doctor possess reasonable knowledge. Hence, we can conclude that a doctor has to constantly update his knowledge to meet the standard expected of him. Furthermore, since only reasonable knowledge is required, it may not be necessary for him to be aware of all the developments that have taken place.

We have, until now, examined the duty of a doctor in so far as treating a patient is concerned or in diagnosing the ailment. Doctors are, however, imposed with a duty to take the consent of a person/patient before performing acts like surgical operations and in some cases treatment as well. To summarize, any act that requires contact with the patient has to be consented by the patient. A duty of care is imposed on the doctors in taking the patient’s consent. Naturally, a question arises as to what is this duty of care. As per the judicial pronouncements, this duty is to disclose all such information as would be relevant or necessary for the patient to make a decision.

When does the liability arise?

The liability of a doctor arises not when the patient has suffered any injury, but when the injury has resulted due to the conduct of the doctor, which has fallen below that of reasonable care. In other words, the doctor is not liable for every injury suffered by a patient. He is liable for only those that are a consequence of a breach of his duty. Hence, once the existence of a duty has been established, the plaintiff must still prove the breach of duty and the causation. In case there is no breach or the breach did not cause the damage, the doctor will not be liable. In order to show the breach of duty, the burden on the plaintiff would be to first show what is considered as reasonable under those circumstances and then that the conduct of the doctor was below this degree. It must be noted that it is not sufficient to prove a breach, to merely show that there exists a body of opinion which goes against the practice/conduct of the doctor.

The following are the necessary conditions of this principle.

Complete control rests with the doctor.

It is the general experience of mankind that the accident in question does not happen without negligence. This principle is often misunderstood as a rule of evidence, which it is not. It is a principle in the law of torts. When this principle is applied, the burden is on the doctor/defendant to explain how the incident could have occurred without negligence. In the absence of any such explanation, liability of the doctor arises.

When there is no liability.

A doctor is not necessarily liable in all cases where a patient has suffered an injury. This may either be due to the fact that he has a valid defense or that he has not breached the duty of care. Error of judgment can either be a mere error of judgment or error of judgment due to negligence. Only in the case of the former, it has been recognized by the courts as not being a breach of the duty of care. It can be described as the recognition in law of the human fallibility in all spheres of life. A mere error of judgment occurs when a doctor makes a decision that turns out to be wrong. It is situation in which only in retrospect can we say there was an error. At the time when the decision was made, it did not seem wrong. If, however, due consideration of all the factors was not taken, then it would amount to an error of judgment due to negligence.


By and large the following legal issues have been addressed and responded to by different forums and Courts in India.

Charge of Medical Negligence against Professional Doctors

From the time of Lord Denning until now it has been held in several judgments that a charge of professional negligence against the medical professional stood on a different footing from a charge of negligence against the driver of a motor car. The burden of proof is correspondingly greater on the person who alleges negligence against a doctor. It is a known fact that with the best skill in the world, things sometimes went wrong in medical treatment or surgical operation. A doctor was not to be held negligent simply because something went wrong. The National Commission as well as the Apex Court in cat