Indian Penal Code, 1860 sections 52, 80, 81, 83, 88, 90, 91, 92 304-A, 337 and 338 contain the law of medical malpraxis in India.
A physician can be charged with criminal negligence when a patient dies from the effects of anesthesia during, an operation or other kind of treatment, if it can be proved that the death was the result if malicious intention, or gross negligence. Before the administration of anaesthesia or performance of an operation, the medical man is expected to follow the accepted precautions.
In such cases, the physician should be able to prove that he used reasonable and ordinary care in the treatment of his patient to the best of his judgment. He is, however, not liable for an error judgment. The law expects a duly qualified physician to use that degree of skill and care which an average man of his qualifications ought to have, and does not expect him to bring the highest possible degree of skill in the treatment of his patients, or to be able to guarantee cures.
It has long been recognized that criminal liability of a physician may result from a high degree of negligent conduct. What the law calls criminal negligence is largely a matter of degree; it is incapable of a precise definition. To prove whether or not it exists is like chasing a mirage. It requires that any of the following to be established in a case of criminal medical negligence.
“Gross Lack of competency or gross inattention, or wanton indifferences to the patient’s safety, which may arise from gross ignorance of the science of medicine and surgery or through gross negligence, either in the application and selection of remedies, lack of proper skill in the use of instruments and failure to give proper attention to the patient.” (Hampton v State; State v Lester)
In R. v Bateman (1925), Dr. Bateman was prosecuted for manslaughter and the charges of negligence made against him were:
i) Causing the internal ruptures in performing the operations of ‘version’;
ii) Removing part of the uterus along with the placenta;
iii) Delay in sending the patient to the infirmary.
The trial court convicted him. But the Court of Appeal held: “ ….. in order to establish criminal liability, the facts must be such that, …. the negligence of the accused went beyond a mere matter of compensation between subjects and should such disregard for the life and safety of others as to amount to a crime against the state and conduct punishment.”
When a FIR (First Information Report) is filed against a doctor for the death of a patient who was under his treatment, under this Indian Penal Code Section 304-A the doctor can be arrested. A doctor charged under this section can obtain bail and if proved guilty, the doctor can be punished with a maximum of two years imprisonment or fine or both. But, if the patient is alive, the doctor is charged under the Indian Penal Code Section 337 and 338.
The Indian Courts have been very careful not to hold qualified physicians criminally (instances of quacks for criminal negligence are there) liable for patients’ deaths that are the result of a mere mistake of judgment in the selection and application of remedies and when the death resulted merely from an error of judgment or an inadvertent death.