Ex-IAF officer who contracted HIV-AIDS during transfusion at military hospital granted compensation by SC

The Bench underlined the duty cast upon all state functionaries, including the upper echelons of power within the armed forces, to ensure the highest standards of safety for armed forces personnel.

ON Tuesday, the Supreme Court awarded a compensation of more than ₹1.5 crore (₹1,54,73,000/-) to an ex-Air Force officer who contracted HIV-AIDS during a blood transfusion in 2002.

A Bench comprising Justices S. Ravindra Bhat and Dipankar Datta found both the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Army jointly liable for medical negligence for the injury suffered by the petitioner.

The amount shall be paid to the appellant within six weeks by the IAF, his employer; it is open to the IAF to seek reimbursement, to the extent of half the sum, from the Indian Army. All arrears related to disability pension too shall be disbursed to the appellant within the said six weeks period,” the Bench directed.

The Bench bemoaned the conduct of both the IAF and Army for obstruction, delay and denial of the petitioner’s requests.

The Bench noted that 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.

It added that a corresponding duty is cast upon all state functionaries, including the upper echelons of power within the armed forces, to ensure that the highest standards of safety (physical and mental well-being, medical fitness as well as wellness) are maintained.

The present case has demonstrated again and again how dignity, honour and compassion towards the appellant were completely lacking in the behaviour of the respondent employer.

Repeatedly, the record displays a sense of disdain and discrimination, even a hint of stigma, attached to the appellant, in the attitude of the respondent employer,” the Bench observed.

The Bench was hearing an appeal filed by the petitioner challenging the decision of the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) dismissing a complaint before seeking a compensation of ₹95 crore (₹95,03,00,000 ) plus litigation expenses of ₹10,000 per hearing and suitable pecuniary punishment to the delinquent officers.

In July 2002, as the services of the petitioner were needed, he was posted at 302 Transportable Radar Unit (TRU), Pathankot. He fell sick whilst on duty during the operation Parakram and complained of weakness, anorexia and passing high-coloured urine.

Thereafter, he was admitted to 171 Military Hospital (MH), Samba.

On July 10, 2002, whilst undergoing treatment at the aforementioned facility, Lt Col Devika Bhat, posted as medical officer (physician), advised him to undergo a blood transfusion.

One unit of blood was, therefore, transfused to the petitioner for the management of severe symptomatic anaemia.

From the record, the Bench noted the following facts:

  • There was nothing to establish that 171 MH was licensed, even as an ad hoc blood bank. 
  • There is no material on record as to whether the nature of equipment available at 171 MH for storing blood and blood products was in accordance with the standards and guidelines prevailing then, in 2002. 
  • During the testimony of witnesses. i.e., before the Court of Inquiry, 171 MH and 166 MH, there was no specific mention about what kind of markers were used to determine whether the transfused blood was in fact safe. 
  • Apart from mentioning the guidelines by the concerned doctors, there is nothing on record to show that such guidelines were, in fact, adhered to when the testing as well as the transfusion took place. 
  • There is no evidence in the form of deposition by the officer in charge of 166 MH, Lt Col. Jyoti Borpujari to rule out the possibility of contaminated blood, which was in fact sent to 171 MH, had taken place.

All this, in the opinion of the Bench, cumulatively pointed to the rather casual and superficial attention paid to the entire episode involving blood transfusion.

It is a matter of record that the concerned doctors who were professionals, i.e., either at 171 MH or 166 MH, felt so pressured by the absolute necessity to follow the drills that the safeguards preceding safe transfusion to the appellant appears to have been given a go-by, or dispensed with,” the Bench noted.

In these circumstances, the normal duty of care which would have ordinarily applied and did apply as well, was that at both ends, i.e., 166 MH and 171 MH, there should have been no doubt that blood had been filtered and found safe for transfusion.

Equally, something in the form of other material on record or in the form of the oral testimony by the medical cadre personnel, such as Lt Col. Devika Bhat of 171 MH who was present in 2002 or Col. Sanjay Chauhan, to show what kind of equipment such as refrigerating unit or other chemical matter to preserve the blood and blood products was available.

When constituted or read together, all these lapses, which may be seen singly as small or minuscule, add up to one thing: lack of adherence to or breach of the relevant standards of care reasonably expected from a medical establishment,” the Bench held.

These facts, the Bench held, established medical negligence, and therefore, vicarious liability on the part of the IAF and the Indian Army.

The former is the appellant’s immediate employer; the latter was the organisation controlling and in charge of 166 MH and 177 MH.

The Bench thus ruled the condition in which the petitioner found himself was the direct consequence of breach of the standards of care by two hospital establishments, resulting in the transfusion of HIV-positive infected blood into the petitioner, which was the causative factor.

Though the present case was not covered by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Prevention and Control) Act, 2017, the Bench issued a slew of directions for the proper and effective implementation of the 2017 Act.

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