SC stays panel order bringing free medical care under consumer law

The Supreme Court has stayed the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission’s (NCDRC’s) order bringing the free medical services provided by government hospitals within the ambit of Consumer Protection Act. The apex consumer forum’s order had made doctors and the hospitals liable to pay compensation for medical negligence.

A bench of Justice Madan B Lokur and Justice Deepak Gupta agreed to examine the Centre’s plea, where it contended the free services provided by government authorities could not be brought under the consumer law.

Holding government hospitals liable for medical negligence, the NCDRC had last year directed Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital to pay Rs 2 lakh as compensation to the parents of a baby who died after she was refused admission to the nursery ICU, and treated in the general ward. The hospital had said it was their policy not to admit babies born outside to the nursery ICU because it could cause infection to others.

The forum said the hospital was negligent in not admitting the baby in the nursery ICU, where she could have been given proper care. “Safdarjung Hospital should have provided nursery facilities to the infant, who was in critical condition. A badly needed facility was denied on the basis of arbitrary and discriminatory policy of the hospital, which is totally unacceptable,” the consumer court had said.

The court refused to accept the hospital’s plea that it was providing free treatment to patients, and could not be made liable under the consumer law. “Free services would also be a service and the recipient a consumer under the Act,” NCRDC had said.

As NCDRC’s ruling could have wide ramifications, bringing all government hospitals within the ambit of consumer law, the Centre had challenged it in the SC. Referring to the SC’s 1995 verdict, additional solicitor general Pinky Anand and advocate Rajesh Ranjan, appearing for the Centre, said doctors and hospitals that render free services to every person were not covered under the Act.

 Agreeing with the Centre’s submission, the bench said the issue needed to be adjudicated and issued notice on the government’s petition. “In the meanwhile, there shall be a stay of operation of the impugned judg ment and order passed by the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission,” it said.
As carried in TOI

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