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Medical Negligence: Burden Of Proof Lies On Hospital Where Negligence Is Evident, Supreme Court

CPL Ashish Kumar Chauhan (Retd.) V/S Commanding Officer & Ors.

The Supreme Court has held that the burden of proof lies on hospitals where negligence is evident.

The division bench of Justice S. Ravindra Bhat and Justice Dipankar Datta observed that the condition in which the appellant found himself, was the direct consequence of the two hospital-establishments and their breach of the standards of care, resulting in the transfusion of the HIV positive infected blood into the appellant, which was the causative factor. The necessary foundational facts, to hold that the application of res ipsa loquitur was warranted, were proved in all detail. The respondents failed to discharge the onus which fell upon them, to establish that due care was in fact exercised and all necessary care standards, applicable at the time, were complied with. As a result, it is held that the respondents are liable to compensate the appellant for the injuries suffered by him, that are to be reckoned in monetary terms.

The court directed the respondents to bear the costs quantified at Rs.5,00,000 which shall also be paid to the appellant, within six weeks. The Supreme Court Legal Services Committee shall bear the honorarium of Rs.50,000 to be paid to the amicus Ms. Shukla.

The aftermath of the attack on Indian Parliament, (i.e., on 13 December 2001) was followed by heightened tensions at the Indo-Pak border. There was troop mobilization at the border; what is termed as a prolonged “eyeball to eyeball” confrontation between Indian armed forces and Pakistani armed forces. 

During this deployment and engagement, known as “Operation Parakram”, the appellant, who was a radar operative/ technician -with the IAF, was deployed at the border. He had enrolled in the IAF from 21.05.1996 in a permanent position and held a combatant rank. His medical category was A4 GI.

In July 2002, as his services were needed, he was posted at 302 TRU (Transportable Radar Unit), Pathankot. He fell sick whilst on duty during the operation (Parakram) and complained of weakness, anorexia and passing high colored urine. He was, therefore, admitted to 171 MH, Samba. 

On 10.07.2002, whilst undergoing treatment at the aforementioned facility, Lt. Col Devika Bhat, posted as MO (Physician), advised him to undergo a blood transfusion. One unit of blood was therefore, transfused to the appellant, for the management of severe symptomatic anemia. The said military hospital facility did not have a license for a blood bank but has been termed by the Indian Army as an “ad-hoc blood bank”. 

Apparently neither any pathologist nor transfusion expert was posted at the facility as it was specifically opened up during Parakram. The appellant alleges that 171 MH did not possess any facility to check markers of blood, including HIV before transfusion and the blood was indented from another military hospital – 166 Military Hospital (“166 MH”) as per the SoP2 on “Adhoc Blood Bank”. The treatment papers of the appellant were entrusted to the Senior Medical Officer of the 302 TRU, Pathankot, for maintenance purposes. In August 2002, the appellant was again admitted to 171 MH; and this time, his hemoglobin level was found to have increased from 11.5gm% to 13.0gm%.

Thus, Medical Boards were held on 12.12.2014 and 24.06.2015 and in terms of the medical board proceedings, the appellant’s disability was attributable to service owing transfusion of one unit of blood at 171 Military Hospital on 10th July 2002. His disability and the disability qualifying elements for the purpose of disability pension were also assessed by the medical board @ 30% for two years. By letter dated 22.03.20163, PCDA (P) Allahabad endorsed the findings of the Release Medical Board and agreed with the sanctioned disability pension. Based on the findings of the medical boards, the appellant was sent to INHS, Asvini Mumbai, for his further medical classification, and the specialist4 suggested that the appellant should be excused from physically exhaustive activities (including PT, Parade, and standing duties).

The Commission dismissed the appellant’s complaint and observed that no expert opinion was adduced or proved before it for establishing medical negligence during the blood transfusion against the respondent/opposite parties. It was also observed that no reason existed for the opposite parties to deny sharing of the appellant’s medical records, and in fact, the discharge certificate, when found was duly supplied to the appellant.

The amici and the appellant argued that it is the onus of the respondents to establish that the two armed forces (Indian Army and IAF) were not negligent, because of the direct acts of their doctors and the hospital. Reference to a letter dated 12.06.2018 was made in which the Respondent No 1 admitted in writing that 171 MH was not authorized to operate any blood bank and therefore, no pathologist was authorized or appointed at the facility. The appellant also referred to an RTI reply11 stating that “there was no transfusion medicine expert (doctor) available and no blood grouping and cross-matching test report is available”.

The Apex court concluded that The present case has demonstrated again and again how dignity, honour and compassion towards the appellant were completely lacking in behaviour by the respondent employer. Repeatedly the record displays a sense of disdain, and discrimination, even a hint of stigma, attached to the appellant, in the attitude of the respondent employer. Although this court has attempted to give tangible relief, at the end of the day it realizes that no amount of compensation in monetary terms can undo the harm caused by such behaviour which has shaken the foundation of the appellant’s dignity, robbed him of honour and rendered him not only desperate even cynical.

The Supreme Court keeping with the mandate of the HIV Act, the following directions are issued to the Central and State Governments:

  1. Under Section 14 (1) of the HIV Act, the measures to be taken by the Central Government and all the State Government are, to provide, (as far as possible), diagnostic facilities relating to HIV or AIDS, Anti- retroviral therapy and Opportunistic Infection Management to people living with HIV or AIDS.
  2. The Central Government shall issue necessary guidelines in respect of protocols for HIV and AIDS relating to diagnostic facilities, Anti- retroviral therapy and opportunistic Infection Management applicable to all persons and shall ensure their wide dissemination at the earliest, after consultation with all the concerned experts, particularly immunologists and those involved in community medicine, as well as experts dealing with HIV and AIDS prevention and cure. These measures and guidelines shall be issued within three months, and widely disseminated, in the electronic media, print media and all popularly accessed public websites.
  3. Under Section 15(1) & (2)oftheHIVAct,theCentralgovernmentand every State Government shall take measures to facilitate better access to welfare schemes to persons infected or affected by HIV or AIDS. Both the Central and State Governments shall frame schemes to address the needs of all protected persons.
  4. Under Section 16 (1) of the HIV Act, the Central and all the State Governments, shall take appropriate steps to protect the property of children affected by HIV or AIDS. By reason of Section 16 (2) of the HIV Act, the parents or guardians of children affected by HIV and AIDS, or any person acting for protecting their interest, or a child affected by HIV and AIDS may approach the Child Welfare Committee [within the meaning of that expression under Section 29 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000] for the safe keeping and deposit of documents related to the property rights of such child or to make complaints relating to such child being dispossessed or actual dispossession or trespass into such child’s house.
  5. The Central and every State Government shall formulate HIV and AIDS related information, education and communication programmes which are age-appropriate, gender-sensitive, non-stigmatising and non-
  6.  The Central Government shall formulate guidelines [under Section
    18(1) of the HIV Act] for care, support and treatment of children infected with HIV or AIDS; in particular, having regard to Section 18 (2) “notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being in force”, the Central Government, or the State governments shall take active measures to counsel and provide information regarding the outcome of pregnancy and HIV- related treatment to the HIV infected women. The Central Government shall also notify HIV and AIDS policy for establishments in terms of Section 12 of the HIV Act.
  7. It is further directed that under Section 19 of the HIV Act, every establishment, engaged in the healthcare services and every such other establishment where there is a significant risk of occupational exposure to HIV, for the purpose of ensuring safe working environment, shall (i) provide, in accordance with the guidelines, firstly, universal precautions to all persons working in such establishment who may be occupationally exposed to HIV; and secondly training for the use of such universal precautions; thirdly post exposure prophylaxis to all persons working in such establishment who may be occupationally exposed to HIV or AIDS; and (ii) inform and educate all persons working in the establishment of the availability of universal precautions and post exposure prophylaxis.
  8.  By reason of Section 20 (1) of the HIV Act, the provisions of Chapter VIII70 of the HIV Act apply to all establishments consisting of one hundred or more persons, whether as an employee or officer or member or director or trustee or manager, as the case may be. In keeping with proviso to Section 20 (1) of the HIV Act, in the case of healthcare establishments, the said provision shall have the effect as if for the words “one hundred or more”, the words “twenty or more” were substituted.
  9. Every person who is in charge of an establishment, mentioned in Section 20 (1) of the HIV Act, for the conduct of the activities of such establishment, shall ensure compliance of the provisions of the HIV Act.
  10.  Every establishment referred to in Section 20 (1) of the HIV Act has to designate someone, as the Complaints Officer who shall dispose of complaints of violations of the provisions of the HIV Act in the establishment, in such manner and within such time as may be prescribed. The rules in this regard may be formulated by the Central Government at the earliest, preferably within 8 weeks from today.

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