Medical Negligence-Vicarious Liability of Doctors
Medical Negligence-Vicarious Liability of Doctors

Vicarious Liability of Doctors

Vicarious liability of doctors is a matter of serious concern to doctors as well as patients.

Vicarious is defined as ‘acting or done for other’.

During a normal medical procedure involving surgery, there are a number of people involved. There is, of course, the ‘Head’ or the ‘main’ doctor , under whose supervision the patient is undergoing treatment. Besides, there are assistant doctors, anesthetists, even Interns who attend to gain experience, nurses etc. Each of them may be tasked by different responsibilities.

In this situation, a defense may be taken by the Head doctor that (s)he is not responsible for acts done by others who are assisting him/her.

This contention has been squarely rejected in a recent judgement by the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission. The NCDRC has held :

“Doctor is vicariously liable for the acts of his team which assists him in every sphere in rendering treatment to the Patient”

Case Synopsis :

1) Patient P died while undergoing treatment at Hospital H , under supervision of Doctor D1.
2) Doctors D2 and D3 were assisting D1. An injection that was to be given intravenously was instead given intrathecally by D2, assisted by D3. After the injection, condition of P worsened and she died within two weeks thereafter.
3) Parents of P filed complaint of Medical Negligence before State Consumer Commission. Complaint was held valid and compensation awarded to parents.
4) Hospital H and the doctors appealed the State Consumer Commission decision at National Consumer Disputes Redressal (NCDRC).
5)  The defense taken by D1 was that he never gave the intrathecal injection, P was already in an advance stage of the disease, treatment was as per regular protocol, and his role was only limited to the extent of giving prescription.

NCDRC Decision:

a) NCDRC rejected defense of D1 and held that “Doctor is vicariously liable for the acts of his team which assists him in every sphere in rendering treatment to the Patient”. NCDRC stated :

“ Having regard to what the Hon’ble Supreme Court has laid down about  ‘Duty of Care’  to be followed by medical professional, viewed from any angle it cannot be construed that ‘Duty of Care’   of the treating Doctor/ head of the department, who is in this case has written the ‘Protocol’, ‘Ends’ with giving the Prescription. At the cost of repetition, we are of the considered view that the Doctor is vicariously liable for the acts of his team which assists him in every sphere in rendering treatment to the Patient.”

b) The Hospital and all the doctors were held negligent and their appeal rejected.

This decision reaffirms the responsibility doctors have in carefully rendering treatment to a patient in their care. The patient doctor relationship ( particularly for in-hospital patients) is a unique one. The patient is totally dependent upon the doctor . Indeed what happens in the operation theater when the patient is unconscious may not ever be revealed, except in exceptional circumstances and, sometimes, by sheer chance.

Read the original complete judgement here.

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