On Thursday, when the Supreme Court asked the Kolkata-based AMRI Hospitals and three doctors to pay Rs 5.96 crore, along with interest, to a U.S.-based doctor of Indian origin, whose 29-year-old wife Anuradha died during treatment in 1998, for many it was an unheard-of situation.

Across the country, dozens of people die or are disabled for life as a result of medical negligence or lack of medical care on a daily basis, but most accept this situation as their destiny and move on. A few take matters to court, never to pursue the case, while many others approach the media and a handful even indulge in violence. That’s about it because people either believe they will not get justice or do not have the resources to seek justice which is often cost and time-consuming.

A very recent episode is the complaint of medical negligence lodged by the family of the former Chief Justice of India, Justice J.S. Verma against a private hospital here, several months after his death. Justice Verma’s wife wrote to none other than the Prime Minister himself, demanding an enquiry.

But Thursday’s court award is a milestone, being the highest-ever compensation given in a case of medical negligence.

Earlier in May 2009, the apex court awarded a compensation of Rs. 1 crore — a record then — to wheelchair-bound Infosys engineer Prashant S. Dhananka for medical negligence during surgery in Hyderabad’s Nizam Institute of Medical Sciences (NIMS), resulting in his spinal cord getting damaged. He died in 2011.

“This [Thursday’s verdict] is a trendsetting judgment and the highest ever paid compensation for medical negligence in a system where medical malpractices happen with impunity. It will also send a strong signal to the entire medical community,” said Mihir Banerjee, vice-president of People for Better Treatment, an organisation set up by Dr. Saha’s friends after Anuradha’s death. The organisation spreads awareness and guides people on how to file cases of medical negligence.

India woefully lacks a proper grievance redress system even though 90 per cent of healthcare is being run by the private sector, and complaints of overcharging and negligence are common. “We have been insisting on a better regulatory mechanism in private medical care. A few cases of compensation are not sufficient in a scenario where exploitation is very high,” says Dr. Amar Jesani of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan.

According to him, most hospitals do not have a redress mechanism. Where there is any, it is run by the management. Worse, the medical fraternity is so interdependent that no doctor will come forward to either report a case of negligence or tender evidence against a fellow doctor. Thus the case will be weakened.

“We need a system which is accessible and run by independent people outside of the set-up,” says Dr. Jesani.

The Jan Swasthya Abhiyan has been working on promoting patients’ rights in hospitals and including the issue in the Clinical Establishments Act to ensure that patients know where to go with a complaint.

At present, the Medical Council of India or State Medical Councils look into such cases but the process is long-winding, and there has been no instance of a doctor’s registration being cancelled for negligence. The next best place is the consumer court, where cases are decided under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. But here courts can only award compensation as the authority to cancel a doctor’s registration lies with the medical councils. From here, the cases go to regular courts.

“This is a rare case [Anuradha’s case] where the justice seeker had the knowledge and resources to take the case to the Supreme Court,” Dr Jesani said. While medical negligence is almost difficult to prove because experts say the doctor’s intention may not be bad, his judgment could have gone wrong.