Covid -19 brought to the surface the dilapidating condition our healthcare system has been in. While not one single person can be blamed for the deaths that took place in the last year but cases in which people died because of the non-availability of an oxygen cylinder, we ought to know what our penal law and our Supreme Court say about them.
The Indian legal system provides relief to the aggrieved under the Consumer Protection Act 1986 for ‘deficiency in service’ and under the Indian Penal Code under sections 304A, 336,337,338 for rash and negligent act on part of the doctors resulting in loss of life or injury (of varying degree) to the patient.
As we all know, ‘mens rea’ or the intention to cause harm to a person constitutes an important element in criminal law, to prove negligence men’s rea is proved when a person acts without taking into consideration the consequence of his act. The Supreme Court of India in the case of Jacob Mathew vs. State of Punjab and Anr held that the degree of negligence should be gross or of a very high degree to constitute an offense under the IPC. The Hon’ble court, in this case, observed that a professional like a lawyer or doctor cannot assure his client or patient of the result but he is supposed to exercise his skill with reasonable competence.
The Supreme Court in this case and many other cases has made clear that one need not be a person of highest expertise in his field to escape the charges of negligence but he should have exercised the ordinary skill which any other competent person of his field would have exercised. In the case of Jacob Mathew vs. State of Punjab and Anr., the aggrieved person’s father died due to no availability of oxygen at the hospital, the court refused to hold the doctors liable under the criminal law of the land because at the most the hospital can be sued for civil liability but the doctor in no way showed any negligence in performing his duty. This was also the first time when the Supreme Court gave certain guidelines which were to be followed in cases against doctors.
To sum it up, doctors cannot be held liable under any of the sections of the Indian Penal Code if the aggrieved or his family comes up saying they suffered a loss of lives or an injury because oxygen cylinders could not be made available.