Published on: 27 September 2023 at 13:11 IST
In a landmark decision that underscores the principles of safeguarding the dignity, rights, and well-being of armed forces personnel, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a retired Air Veteran, finding the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Army jointly and vicariously liable for medical negligence.
The appellant, who contracted HIV during a blood transfusion while on duty during Operation Parakram, has been granted compensation amounting to Rs 1 crore 54 lakhs 73,000.
The Court’s verdict stated: “The appellant is entitled to compensation calculated at 1,54,73,000 rupees on account of medical negligence of the respondents who are held liable for injuries suffered by him. Since individual liability cannot be assigned, the respondent organizations IAF and the Indian Army are held vicariously liable jointly and severally.
The amount shall be paid by the IAF (his employer) within 6 weeks. It is open to the IAF to seek reimbursement to the extent of half the amount from the Army. All arrears related to disability pension shall be disbursed within 6 weeks.”
Furthermore, the Supreme Court, in its extensive judgment, not only addressed the specific case but also issued significant directives related to the HIV Act, 2017.
- It mandated that the government and all courts, quasi-judicial bodies, and other entities discharging judicial functions under central and state enactments actively prioritize cases of individuals suffering from AIDS in accordance with Section 34 of the HIV Act, 2017.
- The Chief Justices of all High Courts were instructed to collect anonymized information about affected individuals while adhering to Section 34(2).
The case was heard by a bench comprising Justices S Ravindra Bhat and Dipankar Datta, as the appellant challenged a judgment from the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC), which had denied his compensation claim for contracting HIV due to medical negligence.
The case revolved around allegations of negligence by the respondents, which resulted in the appellant contracting HIV. While serving on duty under “Operation Parakram” in Jammu & Kashmir, he fell ill and was admitted to 171 Military Hospital, Samba, in July 2002, where he received a blood transfusion during treatment. In 2014, he became ill again, and HIV was diagnosed.
The appellant sought information regarding the Personal Occurrence Report (POR) related to his hospitalization in July 2002, and his Medical Case Sheet was provided. Subsequently, Medical Boards in 2014 and 2015 determined that his disability was attributable to service due to the blood transfusion in July 2002.
The appellant was discharged from service on May 31, 2016, without an extension. When he requested a disability certificate, it was denied, citing a lack of provision for such a certificate.
Discontented with this response, he approached the NCDRC, seeking compensation of 95 crores.
The NCDRC ruled that “In the present case, there is no Expert Opinion to the effect that at the time of blood transfusion in the body of the complainant, the staff of 171 Military Hospital had committed any negligence. As such, the complaint is liable to be dismissed on this short ground alone.”
In response, the air veteran (appellant) brought the case to the Supreme Court.
Duty to Protect the Lives of Armed Forces Personnel
The Supreme Court emphasized the paramount importance of upholding the dignity and well-being of armed forces personnel.
The Court remarked, “People sign up to join the armed forces with considerable enthusiasm and a sense of patriotic duty. This entails a conscious decision to put their lives on the line and be prepared for the ultimate sacrifice of their lives.
A corresponding duty is cast on all state functionaries, including echelons of power within the armed forces, to ensure that the highest standards of safety, both physical and mental well-being, as well as wellness, are maintained.
This is the minimum required of the military airforce employer for not only ensuring the morale of forces but also showing a sense of how much such personnel matter and that their lives count, which reinforces their commitment and confidence.
Any flouting of these standards, as the multiple instances in the present case have established, only entails a loss of confidence in personnel, undermines their morale, and injects a sense of bitterness and despair not only in the individual but throughout the entire force, leaving a sense of injustice.”
The Court further noted, “When a young person from either sex, as is nowadays the case, enrolls/joins any armed forces, at all times their expectation is to be treated with dignity and honor.”
Unfortunately, the Court observed that the respondents’ behavior consistently lacked the fundamental principles of dignity, honor, and compassion. It remarked, “The present case has demonstrated again and again how dignity, honor, and compassion toward the appellant were completely lacking in the respondents’ behavior. Repeatedly, the court places disdain, discrimination, and even a hint of stigma attached to the appellant in the attitude of the respondent.”
The judgment concluded by acknowledging that no amount of compensation could fully heal the wounds inflicted by such behavior. It recognized, “Although this court has attempted to give tangible relief at the end of the day, it realizes that no amount of compensation and monetary terms can undo the harm caused by such behavior, which has shaken the foundation of the appellant’s dignity, robbed him of honor, and rendered him not only desperate but cynical.”
The Court expressed gratitude to the amicus curiae Senior Advocate Ms. Meenakshi Arora for her valuable assistance, as well as to ASG Vikramjeet Banerjee.
The Court also commended the efforts of Advocate Ms. Vanshaja Shukla, the amicus curiae in the matter, for her meticulous compilation of documents and her dedication to addressing all concerns. Notably, the appellant represented himself in the case.
Furthermore, the Court imposed a cost of 5 lakhs on the respondents and allowed the appeal. It directed the Supreme Court Legal Services Committee to pay Rs 50,000 to Advocate Vanshaja Shukla for her efforts.