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SC acquits cancer surgeon in nation's lengthiest case of medical negligence

A 23-year-old legal battle fought between a prominent oncologist and a retired IAS officer ended yesterday afternoon after the Supreme Court (SC) ruled in 79-year-old oncologist Dr Praful Desai’s favour by setting aside the convictions awarded to him by the Bombay High Court and a criminal court. The case has been the oldest and longest running case of medical negligence in the country.

P C Singhi, a retired IAS officer who was fighting to seek justice for his wife, who passed away in 1989, said, “I am shocked, hurt and disappointed after this news. I was not aware of this news until now, but in retrospect this was a fight and I am happy that I fought for justice on my wife’s behalf for the last 25 years.”

Despite being a cancer survivor who underwent 27 surgeries for prostate and bladder cancer, Singhi said he chased justice with the help of his lawyer friends who assisted him financially while he was living off his pension. Singhi added that the money he received as compensation from Desai would be used to set up an organisation to help women suffering from cancer, and that he was looking for various legal options to continue his fight.

While Desai remained unavailable for comment, as he was travelling abroad, his wife Dr Meena said, “The SC verdict came as a major relief for the entire family. The case dragged on for all these years for no fault of my husband and we are glad we can now put this behind us. We’ll be receiving the official document of the verdict shortly.”

The case
Singhi’s wife Leela, who was suffering from breast cancer, was admitted to Bombay Hospital on December 22, 1987. On inspection, doctors discovered that the cancer had spread to the rest of her body. Leela was admitted under Dr Desai’s supervision, then a senior surgeon in the hospital, who insisted on an operation against the opinion of doctors from New York, whom the Singhis had approached earlier. Leela breathed her last on February 26, 1989.

Following Leela’s operation, Singhi immediately filed a compliant of medical negligence against Desai with the Medical Council of India in 1988. It took him two years to get an FIR registered against Desai. Singhi had accused Desai of ordering his then assistant surgeon Dr A K Mukherjee to ‘stitch her up’ after the latter realised that he could not continue with the operation.

Previous rulings
A criminal court held Dr Desai guilty of negligence in 2011 and ordered the Padma Bhushan awardee to pay Singhi a total of Rs 20 lakh, Desai paid Rs 15.5 lakh, which Singhi spent on fighting the case over the years. Singhi filed another petition seeking additional compensation of Rs 70 lakh, which is pending with the court. Desai was also sentenced to a day’s imprisonment on July 5, 2011, by the court. Following his conviction, Desai approached the high court for relief. But here too he was held guilty of medical negligence. He then moved the apex court.

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