In the Supreme Court of India Decided on 25th March 1998. Bench: Hon’ble Justice S. Saghir Ahmad Hon’ble Justice G.B. Pattanaik. Civil Appeal No: 7708 and 7858 of 1997. Petitioner: M/S. Spring Meadows Hospital and Another. Respondent: Harjol Ahluwalia through, K.S. Ahluwalia and Another.
The Consumer Protection Act of 1986: The Act enables the consumers for speedy settlement of disputes and provides better protection to the rights and interests of consumers. The Act succinctly defines who falls within the ambit of ‘consumer’. It also confers jurisdiction on the Commission on matters comprising of unfair trade practices, defects in goods, and deficiencies in services.
The court in this case has helped define the scope of section 2(1)(d) of the Consumer Protection Act and whether such compensation can be granted to a person who hires to avail the services as well. It also enumerated the grounds of medical negligence required to claim compensation by the consumer.
Statutory and Constitutional Provisions Discussed: The Consumer Protection Act of 1986 (hereafter referred to as ‘the Act). Sections 2(1)(d) and 14 of the Act.
The complaint petition was filed before the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission by Harjot Ahluwalia (who is a minor), through his parents Mrs. Harpreet Ahluwalia and Mr. Kamaljit Singh Ahluwalia. The petition alleged that the minor was brought to M/s. Spring Meadows Hospital on 24th December 1993 as there was no improvement in the condition of his health where he was admitted earlier. The senior consultant upon examining the patient diagnosed him with typhoid and prescribed medicines for the treatment. On one such incident on 30th December 1993, Miss Bina Matthew, a nurse of the hospital instructed the father of the patient to get the injection ‘In Lariago’, which was intended to be administered to the patient intravenously. Upon the purchase of the injection, the same was injected to the patient by the nurse. The patient upon receiving the injection immediately collapsed, following which a resident doctor, Dr. Dhananjay, was called for help. The doctor assessed the patient and stated that he had suffered a cardiac arrest and tried to revive the patient by manually pumping his chest. The patient thereafter was kept under a manual respirator. Despite being placed under the manual ventilator and the necessary blood transfusion having taken place, the minor patient showed no signs of improvement. Subsequently, the hospital authorities informed the parents to shift the patient to a hospital with an ICU and an auto-respirator. Thereafter, the patient was brought to AIIMS on 3rd January 1994 and the doctors after examination stated that the patient was critical and would only survive in a vegetative state as irreparable damage had been caused to his brain and there were no chances of a possible revival of the damaged parts. Accordingly, he was discharged from AIIMS on 24th January 1994 as no significant improvement could be made to the patient’s condition. The M/S Meadows Hospital offered to re-admit the patient to do whatever was possible to stabilize the condition of the patient and he was thus, admitted again. The complainant alleged that it was due to medical negligence that the patient suffered irreparable damage and could only survive in a vegetative state. Thus, a compensation of Rs. 28 Lakhs was claimed. The Commission came to the conclusion that the child had suffered from cardiac arrest due to the intravenous injection of lariago of high dose and there was medical negligence on part of the hospital authorities. Accordingly, the Commission awarded the compensation of Rs. 12.5 Lakhs to the minor patient. It also awarded Rs. 5 Lakhs as compensation to the parents of the minor child for the mental agony endured due to their only son surviving in a vegetative state requiring lifelong attention and care. The Commission also made the insurance company liable to indemnify the amount of Rs.12,37,500 in terms of the policy on account of the liability of the hospital as the case was fully covered under the indemnity clause. Thus, the following appeals to the Supreme Court arose due to the order passed by the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, New Delhi on 16th June 1997. The appellants in the two appeals are the Hospital and the insurance company.
- Can the parents of the child claim compensation under the provisions of The Consumer Protection Act?
- Does Section 14 of the Act vest power in the Commission to grant compensation to the parents of the child for the mental agony endured?
- Can the parents of the child be construed as ‘consumers’ under Section 2 (1)(d) of The Act.
- If the parents and child fall under the purview of Section 2 (1)(d) of the Act, can the compensation be awarded to the beneficiary of the services rendered, that is the child in the present case or are both the consumers eligible for the compensation?
Arguments put forth by the petitioner:
- The counsel appearing on behalf of the hospital contended the complainant being a minor child can be the only one construed as ‘consumer’ and the parents of the minor child cannot claim compensation under the Consumer Protection Act for the mental agony they have suffered.
- It was contended that the compensation of Rs. 5 Lakhs granted to the parents of the minor child was beyond the competence of the Commission.
- It was contended that as per the provisions of Section 12 (1)(a) of the Act, only the consumer to whom services has been provided can make a complaint. The patient in this case being provided the services becomes a consumer and hence, no compensation can be awarded in favour of the parents.
- It was contended that under the provision of Section 14 clause (d) of the Act, the Commission cannot be enabled to grant an award of compensation to both the parents and the child. It can only grant compensation to the minor child who has suffered injuries and not the parents.
- It was contended that the hospital authorities had displayed humanitarian approach by re-admitting the patient without charging any money after being discharged from AIIMS and thus, in such a situation an award of damages for mental agony to the parents is wholly unjustified.
- It was lastly contended that under Section 14 (1)(d) of the Act, the Commission would be entitled to pay the compensation for any loss or damage suffered by the consumer.
- The counsel on behalf of the insurer, contended that the insurer is not liable to indemnify the hospital as the hospital had employed incompetent people to treat the patients and the direction of the Commission that the insurer should indemnify the insured is ‘unsustainable in law’.
Pertaining to the contention of the insurer, the court stated that it was not open to entertaining the consideration as the notice issued by this court deals only with the legality of the award of compensation granted to the parents of the minor child.
The court in the case acknowledged the difficulty posed while raising action of medical negligence and stated that there are practical difficulties in linking the injury to the medical treatment accompanied by the difficulty in establishing the standard of care in medical negligence of which a complaint can be made. The court further stated that “In a claim for compensation arising out of medical negligence, a plea of bonafide mistake under certain circumstances may be excusable but a mistake which would tantamount to negligence cannot be pardoned”. This means that the court can accept the former case owing to human fallibility in order to exempt the defendant from liability. However, in the latter case, the conduct of the defendant if gone beyond the bounds of what is expected of the reasonable skill of a competent doctor will not be pardoned.
Further, it was held that gross medical mistake will always result in a finding of negligence and that usage of the wrong drug or wrong gas during the course of anesthetic would be sufficient to impose liability and in certain cases, the principle of ‘Res Ipsa loquitur’ (a principle that the mere occurrence of some types of accidents is sufficient to imply negligence) can also be applied. A delegation of responsibilities to another could also amount to negligence in certain cases.
The court in order to answer the question of whether the parents of the minor child fall within the definition of ‘consumer under Section 2 (1)(d) of the Act, analyzed clause (ii) of the section and stated that the clause being broad enough, a ‘consumer’ “would include not only the person who hires the services but also the beneficiary of such services which beneficiary is other than the person who hires the services.” Thus, the parents of the minor child and the child would be ‘consumers’ within the meaning of Section 2(1)(d) of the Act and can claim compensation in the present case.
The court while answering the question of whether the Commission can grant compensation to the parents of the minor child rejected the contention of the petitioner and stated that the parents of the child having hired the services of the hospital and the child is the beneficiary of such services fall within the meaning of Section 2(1)(d) of the Act. Thus, the Commission would be fully justified in awarding compensation under Section 14 clause (d), to both the parents and the child for the injury sustained by them. It further stated that such compensation was awarded to the parents of the minor child for their acute mental agony and the life-long care and attention they would have to bestow on the child. Thus, the court saw no infirmity in the order of the Commission and upheld its decision to award compensation to the parents, in addition to the compensation in favor of the minor child.
The court rejected the contention of the appellant and stated that the mental agony endured by the parent by seeing their only child in a vegetative state on account of medical negligence cannot be palliated by the ‘humanitarian approach’ of the Hospital and such approach can’t be considered to be a factor in denying the compensation for mental agony suffered by the parents.
The contentions raised by the counsel appearing for the appellants having failed, the appeal failed and was hence, dismissed. Thus, both the appeals were dismissed with costs of Rs. 5000.
Thus, the court through this case defined the scope of Section 2(1)(d) of the Act and further ascertained that the Commission would be entitled to award compensation under Section 14 clause (d) of the Act, to a consumer, for any loss or injury suffered by them, due to the negligence of the opposite party.
Edited by: Purnima Ojha