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Legopedia

Section 304 a – Death by Negligence : Law and Legality

section 304 a

Indian Penal Code: Section 304 a

India’s criminal system follows the Indian Penal Code in matters of dealing with crime. The framework of the Indian Penal Code governs crime with justice and punishment. Owing to the influence of English Law, the original Indian Penal Code had provisions for culpable homicide under Section 299. Section 299 deals with any act or bodily injury caused by any person with the intention of causing death. Section 304 of IPC deals with the provision of culpable homicide not amounting to murder. This section involves crimes perpetrated with the knowledge of causing death but without any intention of doing the same.

The original Penal Code did not have any provision for dealing with death caused by negligence.  In 1870,  Act 27 of the Indian Penal Code added Section 304 a and b as an amendment. The following article is going to discuss Section 304 (a) under IPC in detail.

Section 304(a) states as follows:

“Whoever causes the death of any person by doing any rash or negligent act not amounting to culpable homicide shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or both.”

Any act under Section 304(a) is a bailable offence under the IPC. In such a case, the Court allows the defendant to make bail by paying a surety amount along with a bail bond at the police station. This offence is also compoundable which means that the plaintiff and the defendant can reach an agreement between themselves through their counsel and avoid trial. This often occurs in cases involving powerful Companies who would settle instead of going through a public trial.

Negligent Homicide: The Parameters of Law

The law sets parameters but also keeps spaces open for interpretation because each case has a different context.  Section 304(a) uses the words “rash or negligent act” as the deciding elements to charge any person under this section Therefore it is important to understand these terms and its various connotations.

Firstly, the Act being mentioned above should be causa causans,i.e, the primary cause of death and not merely causa sine qua non,i.e, an indirect act. Therefore, the relationship between the act and the death or injury resulted by it should be direct for the plaintiff to win the case.

Secondly,  there is a difference in the responsibility of the defendant vis-i vis the plaintiff between a negligent act and a rash act. A negligent act is a breach of duty that causes harm/damage to another person unintentionally. On the contrary, a rash act is the culmination of overhasty decisions and recklessness on the part of the defendant.

Thirdly,  a rash act is generally a criminal act. A negligent act could be civil or criminal depending on the gravity and the nature of the crime along with the degree of intention or lack thereof in a particular case.

Types of Negligence

There could be many ways of partaking in criminal negligence. There are two major criteria that come to the forefront while discussing Criminal Negligence:

Medical Negligence

Medical negligence is a breach of duty on the part of the defendant who has a legal as well as a moral duty to look after his/her patient. The act of “Negligence” is open to interpretation based on the actions of the defendant in each case. A medical practitioner is liable for negligence if he/she deviates from “the standard treatment” recommended for taking care of his/her patient causing death or injury of the patient. A medical practitioner can be a doctor as well as a nurse. Medical negligence cases can be civil as well if the hospital as a whole is held accountable for malpractice. For instance, using faulty equipment or expired medicines in the hospital.

Motor Vehicle Accidents

The incident of a motor vehicle crash leading to the death of people will not be enough to charge someone under Section 304(a) for negligent driving. The charge of criminally negligent driving requires the driver to be solely or entirely responsible for the accident because of their negligence or rashness. This, however, requires interpretation on part of the court; taking into account the level of rashness and deliberation in an action that led to an accident. The court has to take into account that if one decides to drive under influence, they are aware of the consequences of their decision. The court also has to take into account the degree of damage done by undertaking that reckless decision.

Corporate Negligence

In matters of corporate negligence, a Company is liable under Section 304(a) if it takes any action that injures their consumers, creates an unsafe environment for its employees or cheats their shareholders.  Some of the crimes that come under corporate negligence cases are:

  • air and water pollution caused by industries;
  • adulteration of food by food companies;
  • involving themselves in different lobbies for their own profit by exchanging money with political parties;
  • releasing confidential information without permission;
  • recording personal conversations and breaching privacy;
  • harming or cheating the shareholders’ out of their profit.

The burden of Proof and Defense against Section 304(a)

In claims of negligence, it is extremely important to prove that there was indeed a breach of duty. In many cases of medical negligence, the professional might make a decision based on the complicated nature of the case presented to him/her. The burden of proof lies with the doctor to prove that they behaved in a reasonable way only in the interest of the patient.

The other arguments on which the defendant relies are as follows:

  • contributory negligence: proving there was negligence on the part of the plaintiff;
  • inevitable accident: proving that the death or injury caused was inevitable depending on the circumstances of the action;
  • dangerous recreational activity: proving that the plaintiff’s injury is a result of partaking in a dangerous recreational activity like drugs. In such a case, the defendant will not be liable for any damages.
  • illegal activity– proving that both the plaintiff and the defendant were engaged in an illegal business when the plaintiff was injured. This renders the case void.

In civil negligence cases, the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff to prove that there was a breach of duty by the Company/Corporate. The breach of duty has to directly damage the plaintiff. In the case of powerful Companies, the plaintiffs should be ready to show concrete proof, including reliable testimonies and documents to reach a favourable verdict.

Section 304a IPC: Judgements

Some of the landmark judgements in cases related to Section 304(a) IPC:

 Jacob Mathew v State of Punjab [ANR 2005]

The plaintiffs, in this case, were the family of Jivan Lal who was admitted and died in CMC Hospital, Ludhiana. The two doctors who attended the deceased were Jacob Matthew and Allen Joseph. The doctors had to face the charge of criminal negligence. The plaintiffs claimed negligence on the doctor’s part while procuring oxygen cylinder for their father. The defence argued that the patient was at the last stage of cancer. He was not supposed to be admitted to any hospital in lieu of his degrading health.

The Supreme Court argued in favour of the doctors stating that the plaintiff must prove that the medical professionals acted “in disregard of the life and safety of the patient.” A medical professional cannot be held liable if they are following the accepted procedure of medical practice. They cannot be reprimanded for not using an alternative method that might or might not have brought the desired result. They can only be charged in either of the two conditions

  • if they do not possess the skill to match their profession.
  • if they did not show reasonable competence while discharging their duty; the standard set here would be of an ordinary competent person.

Somabhai Mangalbhai Dabhi vs State of Gujarat [1988]

The Session Judge convicted the accused of the death of a 10-year-old girl. He was charged under section 304 (a) of IPC for the negligent driving of a motor bus. The defence claimed that the girl entered the road out of nowhere. There was insufficient evidence of the girl coming out of nowhere and also the fact that the driver was driving on the wrong side. Therefore, the sessions court sentenced the accused with two years of Rigorous Imprisonment (RI) along with 500 rupees fine. The Supreme court did allow probation after regarding the context of the case.

Conclusion

The provision of Section 304(a) under the IPC is important to offer a measure of justice to the claimants. It might give them some closure or at the very least compensate them if there has been a breach of duty that led to irreversible damage or loss of life/property.

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by Pooja Das

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