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The Eggshell Skull Legal Principal

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THE EGGSHELL SKULL LEGAL PRINCIPAL

Underlining that the state and central consumer courts incorrectly applied the ‘eggshell skull’ legal principle, the Supreme Court on April 23 restored the compensation of Rs. 5 lakhs awarded by the district consumer forum in a medical negligence case.

WHAT IS THE EGGSHELL SKULL RULE?

The eggshell skull rule is a common law principle applied in civil litigation. Essentially, when the offender would be liable for all injuries that might be intensified due to the peculiar conditions of the injured person that the offender might not have known.

Simply put, the defendant would be held responsible for injuries caused to a person when he hit him on the head, even if the victim had a particularly delicate skull or an ‘eggshell’ for a skull.

The rule is applied for claiming an enhanced compensation — for damage that is more than what could have been ordinarily anticipated to be caused by the defendant.

THE ORIGINS

The origins of the eggshell skull rule are most often traced back to an 1891 Vosburg v. Putney case in Wisconsin, US.

The incident took place at a school in Wisconsin’s Waukesha when a 12-year-old boy, Putney, kicked a 14-year-old boy, Vosburg, in the shin without the knowledge that the latter had suffered a prior injury in that bodily region. The Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the injury was aggravated due to the kick, which “caused his (Vosburg’s) leg to become lame”.

In his judgment, Justice William P Lyon said even though Putney did not intend to cause this degree of harm, the kick was an “unlawful act” as it took place after the teacher had called the class to order.

He concluded: “One who intends the act is also responsible for the subsequent harm.”

THE CASE IN UK

A decade after the Putney decision, the King’s Bench (a part of the English legal system) awarded damages to a pregnant woman who sustained severe shock and fell ill after the defendant’s servant “negligently drove a pair-horse van into the public house”, where the woman was working behind the bar.

She claimed that this caused her to give premature birth to a child, who “was born an idiot”.

THE PRESENT CASE

In 2005, one Jyoti Devi went in to have her appendix removed in a hospital in Himachal Pradesh’s Mandi district. Though the surgery was as planned, her abdominal pain would not subside.

What followed was a four-year ordeal and several hospital visits.

Ultimately, doctors at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Science, Chandigarh, found that “a 2.5 cm foreign body (needle)” was left behind in her abdomen, which needed to be surgically removed.

THE LITIGATIONS IN ITS AFTERMATH

  • When Jyoti moved the district consumer forum for compensation, she was awarded 5 lakhs for medical negligence by the hospital in Mandi.
  • However, when the hospital appealed against the order, the state consumer forum reduced the compensation to Rs. 1 lakh and
  • The National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) enhanced it to 2 lakh.

The case reached the SC which restored the district forum’s decision on compensation and said that the other two courts had awarded a “paltry” and “unjust” sum even while they applied the eggshell skull rule.

WHAT DID THE SC RULE EXACTLY?

The SC held that the eggshell skull rule would not apply in Jyoti’s case since the facts of the case do not indicate that she had a “pre-existing vulnerability or medical condition, because of which the victim may have suffered ‘unusual damage’.”

The court noted that the NCDRC had simply mentioned the rule but was “silent as to how this rule applies to the present case.”

The ruling stated the two factors necessitated enhancing the compensation:

  • Jyoti had suffered pain for more than 5 years and
  • The case took more than a decade to be decided.

 

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