New Delhi: In a judgment that is going to have a major impact on medical negligence cases, the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) has held that consumer court complaints for alleged medical negligence can be initiated, continued or adjudicated simultaneously along with criminal cases.
Referring to the Supreme Court judgment in Guru Granth Saheb Sthan Meerghat Vanaras Vs. Ved Prakash & Ors., where the question of simultaneous prosecution of the criminal proceedings with civil suit had come up for consideration, the NCDRC panel comprising of Dr S.M. Kantikar and Binoy Kumar pointed out that in that case, the top court had pointed out that no hard and fast rule could be laid down in this regard.
Putting reliance on the Apex Court judgment, the top consumer court observed, “In the case of alleged medical negligence, the simultaneous criminal proceeding is no bar to the initiation, continuation and adjudication in the Complaints filed under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 (for short ‘the Act,1986’); more so, when the standard of proof in proceedings under the Act, and Criminal proceedings is entirely different.”
“Nonetheless the possibility of conflicting decisions in the civil and criminal courts is not a relevant consideration. The law envisages such an eventuality when it expressly refrains from making the decision of one court binding on the other, which is not even the case of the Opposite Party here,” further noted NCDRC.
Such observation came from the top consumer court of India while it was considering an appeal filed against the orders passed by West Bengal State Commission.
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The case concerned the death of the complainant’s sister, who had died in 2008 and for this, the complainant had alleged medical negligence by a Hooghly-based doctor. The Complainant had filed two separate complaints against the treating doctor and the nursing home. In one complaint, she had brought a criminal case under IPC Section 304A and in the other one she had filed a case before W.B. State Consumer Forum (WBSCDRC) seeking compensation for the alleged medical negligence.
However, the case before the Consumer Court remained pending on the ground that until the criminal case against the accused doctor is completed, the consumer case cannot be adjudicated.
Challenging such a stand by the State Consumer Court, West Bengal, the appellant approached the top consumer court NCDRC and it was argued on behalf of the appellant that in the cases of alleged medical negligence there is no bar for the aggrieved seeking simultaneous legal remedy under Civil and Criminal Law.
At this outset, the Authorised Representative appearing on the behalf of the appellant referred to the decision of the Supreme Court in Guru Granth Saheb Sthan Meerghat versus Ved Prakash and others, wherein the apex court had referred to a previous judgment where it was held that “It is settled law that pendency of the criminal matters would not be an impediment to proceed with the civil suits.”
On the other hand, the counsel appearing for the treating doctors referred to the fact that the complaint was filed after the delay of 1975 days, which cannot be condoned.
After considering the arguments made by both the parties, perusing various orders passed before the State Commission, and taking note of the sequence of proceedings, the NCDRC division bench noted, “In the case of alleged medical negligence, the simultaneous criminal proceeding is no bar to the initiation, continuation and adjudication in the Complaints filed under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 (for short ‘the Act,1986’); more so, when the standard of proof in proceedings under the Act, and Criminal proceedings is entirely different.
“We would like to put reliance on the decisions of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Guru Granth Saheb Sthan Meerghat Vanaras Vs. Ved Prakash & Ors. (2013) 7 SCC 622, wherein the question of simultaneous prosecution of the criminal proceedings with civil suit, came up for consideration. Relying on the observations of the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in M.S. Sheriff Vs. State of Madras AIR 1954 SCC 397, the Court held that no hard and fast rule could be laid down in this regard. Nonetheless the possibility of conflicting decisions in the civil and criminal courts is not a relevant consideration. The law envisages such an eventuality when it expressly refrains from making the decision of one court binding on the other, which is not even the case of the Opposite Party here,” further mentioned the top consumer court.
Opining that both the parties should be given fair opportunity, NCDRC mentioned in the judgment, “This is the case of alleged medical negligence and in our considered view fair opportunity to be given to both the sides for holistic adjudication. The aggrieved Consumer has right to seek legal remedy initiate proceedings before Civil and Criminal Courts including Consumer Courts and Professional Regulatory Bodies(PRB).”
“As a matter of fact, having regard to the object and intent of the Act, summary trial of Consumer Complaint has to be given precedence over other cases, be it civil or criminal in nature. The question of double jeopardy, self-incrimination or the binding effect of the findings in summary proceedings under the Act, does not arise on facts, at hand. It is pertinent that, neither the rigors of the Evidence Act 1872, nor of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1908 are attracted in the proceedings under the Act, which provides for an alternative system of consumer justice by summary trial,” clarified the Commission.
Thus, setting aside the State Commission order saying the consumer court proceedings, NCDRC observed in the order, “We are, therefore, of the view that the trial in criminal cases against the Opposite Party, is no ground for stay of proceedings before the Consumer Fora. Without touching to the merits of this case, the orders of the State Commission dated 13.02.2013 in MA No. 245 of 2012 and Order dated 08.02.2018 in IA No. 365 of 2017 are set aside.”
Allowing the appeal, the top consumer court directed the parties to appear before the State Commission for further proceedings. “Considering that the Complaint was filed in 2010, we are now in 2022, we request the State Commission to decide this matter expeditiously preferably within six months from today,” further directed NCDRC in its order.
While commenting on the matter, Dr. Kunal Saha, President of PBT and also the Authorised Representative in the case said, “In order to bring equitable justice for the loved one who died due to gross medical negligence, many ‘living” victims of medical negligence lodge cases against the errant doctor both in the criminal and civil (consumer) courts. Many of these cases have been languishing in court for years and decades on the technical plea that consumer court cases cannot proceed until the criminal case is completed. Today’s judgment by NCDRC will pave the way for many victims of medical negligence to find speedy justice in the consumer court while a parallel criminal case can continue in a different forum.”
To read the order, click on the link below.
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Barsha Misra has pursued her M.A in English and Culture Studies from the University of Burdwan, West Bengal. She likes reading,writing and exploring new places.
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