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US doctor wins record Indian medical negligence payout

Surgeons carry out an operation at a New Delhi hospital
Surgeons carry out an operation at a New Delhi hospital

India's Supreme Court Thursday awarded a record payout of almost a million dollars for medical negligence to a campaigning American doctor who said the ruling set vital precedents and would help save lives.

Kunal Saha, an HIV/AIDS specialist of Indian origin based in Ohio, travelled to India in 1998 with his 36-year-old wife who died after contracting a rare skin disease which was treated in a leading private hospital in Kolkata.

After being awarded a far smaller payout by a consumer dispute commission in 2011, Saha appealed to the Supreme Court seeking greater compensation, leading to Thursday's judgement 15 years after her death.

"It's closure of a personal battle for justice for my wife," Saha told AFP by phone from his home in Ohio, saying his payout would help inflate awards by lower courts and act as a deterrent to doctors and hospitals.

"The purpose was served. The medical community in India will sit up and the courts will have to think," he added.

Saha's NGO, People for Better Treatment, campaigns for patient rights in India which has a booming medical tourism industry that sees hundreds of thousands of foreigners travel for cheap surgery.

"I understand that doctors can't stop all deaths -- I'm a doctor myself -- but you open up the newspaper every day and read about horrific cases, negligent cases," he said.

"What you don't see is a doctor being punished."

The 59.6 million rupees (970,000 dollars), a record compensation sum for medical negligence in India, is to be paid by AMRI Hospitals and three doctors, whose liability was fixed at one million rupees.

Saha, whose personal loss spurred his "crusade" in India, said he would receive almost double the amount stipulated because he will be paid interest on his claim dating back to when he first filed a suit.

"Within eight weeks a demand draft should be given to Dr Kunal Saha and a compliance report filed in the Supreme Court," announced Justice Gopal Gowda in court on Thursday morning.

A spokeswoman for AMRI Hospitals declined to comment when contacted by AFP because she said the company had not seen the court order.

Malpractice in India's booming medical industry is believed to be rampant and Saha's persistence through the country's notoriously slow legal system had already set precedents and encouraged others to file cases.

In a highly unusual step, a total of 17 doctors were ordered to stand trial over the treatment of Saha's wife Anuradha. They were found guilty of negligence.

Anuradha, a child psychologist and graduate of Columbia University in New York, contracted toxic epidermal necrolysis while in India but was badly diagnosed and given an overdose of steroids.

"They had a deadly combination of ignorance and arrogance," Saha said, adding that the worst treatment in India generally occurred in overstretched public hospitals but "mercenary" private facilities were also to blame.

In 2007 as part of his work against negligence, Saha highlighted how corruptly procured blood testing kits financed by the World Bank were leading to HIV-contaminated blood being used in Indian hospitals.

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