Smt. Santra, poor laborer woman with 7 children, underwent sterilization through a state-run program in order to avoid a future pregnancy. After the sterilization was performed, Smt. Santra was provided with a certificate signed by authorized government medical officers and was assured that the procedure had been successful and she therefore would not become pregnant again. She subsequently became pregnant and ultimately gave birth to a girl. When she initially contacted doctors at the hospital, she was told she was not pregnant. However, when the pregnancy became apparent, she was told the sterilization procedure had not been successful. The procedure had only been done on one fallopian tube, with the other remaining untouched. Smt. Santra requested an abortion but was told that this would be dangerous to her life. Smt. Santra filed a civil claim for damages of rupees two lakhs (about $3,000 USD), citing medical negligence. The district court and the lower appellate court both found that the procedure performed was not complete, demonstrating negligence on the part of the doctor and ordered payment of compensation of 54,000 rupees, with 12% interest rate from the date of the institution of the civil suit until the payment of the compensation.
The State of Haryana then filed an appeal before the Supreme Court contending that the negligence of the medical officer would not bind the state government and that it would not be vicariously liable. It further contended that the expenses awarded for bringing up the child could not have been legally decreed as there was no element of “tort” involved and the respondent had not suffered a loss which could be compensated with money.
The Supreme Court recognized that the doctor who performed the procedure had been negligent by failing to perform any action on one of Smt. Santra’s fallopian tubes. Therefore, the question at issue in this case was who had to bear the expenses of bringing up the child. The Supreme Court considered analogous case law from United Kingdom, Scotland, United States, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia finding that there was no consensus: in some cases, courts refused to grant damages for birth of a child, viewing this as being against public policy, whereas in many others, damages were offset against the benefits derived from the pleasure of having and bringing up that child. The Court also considered cases where damages were granted if the sterilization had been undertaken for social and economic reasons.
The Supreme Court differentiated this case from those wherein damages had been rejected on the basis of public policy or due to the pleasure derived from having a child, recognizing that India is a highly populated developing country and the state itself had launched programs to combat population growth (e.g. sterilization programs). Further, in the context of persons existing below the poverty line, the Supreme Court considered they should not be denied a claim for damages for medical negligence, stating that “damages for the birth of an unwanted child may not be of any value for those who are already living in affluent conditions, but those who live below the poverty line or who belong to the labor class cannot be denied the claim for damages on account of medical negligence.”
The Supreme Court noted that in India, the Madhya Pradesh High Court in State of M.P v. Asharam (1997 ACJ 1224 MP) had awarded damages for child-birth as a result of failed sterilization. It also highlighted that under the Criminal Procedure Code 1973 of India, parents are mandated to maintain and provide for food, clothing, residence, education and medical needs of their minor children.
Consequently, the Supreme Court held that, in a society where the population is growing fast and where the state has made family planning an important program, the doctor as well as the state must be held responsible for damages if the doctor’s negligent actions result in the birth of a child. As a result, the Court affirmed that Smt. Santra should be entitled to damages to enable her to bring up the child to puberty, and rejected the state’s appeal on the issue of its vicarious liability, citing prior Supreme Court decisions holding the state vicariously liable for the negligence of its medical officers.