Wednesday 17 Jul 2024

Egg-Shell Skull Rule - Law of torts

Adv Moses Pinto | JUNE 09, 2024, 12:25 AM IST

An overview of the Egg-shell skull rule which has been provided by Oxford University Press (2024), enunciates:

“The rule that a tortfeasor cannot complain if the injuries he has caused turn out to be more serious than expected because his victim suffered from a pre-existing weakness, such as an unusually thin skull. A tortfeasor must take his victim as he finds him (Smith v Leech Brain & Co Ltd [1962] 2 QB 405).”

According to Justice Sanjay Karol in Special Leave Petition (Civil) No. 242 of 2016 before the hon’ble Supreme Court of India in the matter of Jyoti Devi Versus Suket Hospital & Ors. on the 23rd of April, 2024, in the Judgment it was observed:

“In simple terms, a person who has an eggshell skull is one who would be more severely impacted by an act, which an otherwise “normal person” would be able to withstand. Hence the term eggshell to denote this as an eggshell is by its very nature, brittle. It is otherwise termed as “taking the victim as one finds them” and, therefore, a doer of an act would be liable for the otherwise more severe impact that such an act may have on the victim.”

Hence, “If the victim’s skull fractures more easily than the average person, the defendant is still fully liable for all resulting damages, despite the victim’s unusual vulnerability.” (Vajiram & Ravi, 2024).

In the matter of Jyoti Devi Versus Suket Hospital & Ors. the Eggshell Skull Rule has been discussed as paragraph 12.4 which is as follows:

“12.4.1 This rule holds the injurer liable for damages that exceed the amount that would normally be expected to occur. It is a common law doctrine that makes a defendant liable for the plaintiff’s unforeseeable and uncommon reactions to the defendant’s negligent or intentional tort.”

The Judgment in Jyoti Devi (supra) traces back the historical origins of the Egg-Shell Skull:

This rule is well recognized and has often formed the basis of which compensation has been awarded in countries such as the United States of America. So much so, that a famous treatise records as follows

As per the book entitled: Proximate Cause Untangled written by Mark A. Geistfeld, published by the New York University School Of Law in Public Law And Legal Theory Research Paper Series Working Paper No. 21-37  (2021):

 “Extensive research has failed to identify a single United States case disavowing the rule” 

Justice Sanjay Karol in Jyoti Devi (supra) has observed:

“Its origins, if not by that name, have been traced back to 1891 in a decision of the

Washington State Supreme Court- Vasburg v. Putney 50 N.W 403 (Wis 1891). In this case, arising out of a common childhood altercation, Putney, a twelve-year-old child had kicked the fourteen-year-old Vasburg, which aggravated a previous injury (of which Putney was not aware), leading to his permanent incapacitation. Putney was held liable. The Court opined “the wrongdoer is liable for all the injuries resulting directly from the wrongful act, whether they could or could not have been foreseen by him” (Para 12.4.2, p. 9).

In Jyoti Devi Versus Suket Hospital & Ors. on the 23 of April, 2024, the Apex Court in light of the facts, observed and held as under:

13. Let us now turn our attention back to the facts in presenti. Keeping in view the afore-noted position of law in regard to the benevolent purpose of the Consumer Protection Act, the aspects required to be established to allege medical negligence, the determination of compensation in a case where a person is injured, we find the manner in which compensation stood reduced by the State Commission as also the NCDRC, vis-à-vis the District Forum to be based on questionable reasoning.

14. The State Commission has recognized that the appellant herein had not been treated “with the care expected at a medical clinic”; she had been suffering from persistent pain right from 2005 until December, 2008; and that post-surgical care was deficient which undoubtedly constitutes a deficiency in service and yet found it appropriate to reduce the compensation to a mere Rs.1 lakh. This clearly is not in line with the balance of interests required to be borne in mind while determining compensation.

15. The NCDRC observed that the claimant-appellant’s treatment at the respondent-Hospital was ‘casual’; that the excuse of having sought treatment at other hospitals was not available to the respondents and that she had suffered pain for more than 5 years apart from the case having been dragged on for more than a decade, and yet lumpsum compensation was only Rs.2 lakhs. 

16. How could such compensation be justified, after observations having been made regarding the service rendered by the Hospital, being deficient, and the continuous pain and suffering on the part of the claimant-appellant, is something we fail to comprehend. Compensation by its very nature, has to be just. For suffering, no part of which was the claimant-appellant’s own fault, she has been awarded a sum which can, at best, be described as ‘paltry’...

18. Considering the discussion as aforesaid, we deem it fit to set aside the Awards of the NCDRC as also the State Commission and restore the Award as passed by the District Forum, meaning thereby that a sum of Rs.5 lakhs ought to be paid expeditiously by the respondents to the appellant for being medically negligent and providing services deficient in nature. The sum of Rs.5 lakhs shall be accompanied by interest simple in nature @ 9% from the date of the award passed by the District Forum. The same be paid within a period of four weeks from the date of this judgment. Additionally, a cost of Rs.50,000/- be paid in terms of the cost of litigation. The appeal is accordingly allowed.”

Resultantly, it becomes clear that since the Supreme Court of India has not provided any shelter for negligent hospitals functioning anywhere within its jurisdiction to evade responsibility for medical negligence committed by its doctors and medical staff, the protection of a victim of medical negligence has been reassured by the passing of the Reportable Judgment in Jyoti Devi Versus Suket Hospital & Ors. in Special Leave Petition (Civil) No. 242 of 2016.

The writer is a Doctoral Researcher working under the Alliance of European Universities and has presented his research works at various Academic Conferences

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