This month, the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to hear a case that challenged the legal precedent that prohibits military personnel from filing medical malpractice lawsuits against the military. The decision was not unanimous. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Clarence Thomas — who often aren’t on the same side of Court decisions — both voted to let the case move forward.
The case involves the death of a former Coast Guard officer’s wife in 2014. The woman bled to death after she gave birth at Naval Hospital Bremerton. The suit claimed that doctors failed to respond appropriately when she started bleeding excessively after her daughter was delivered.
A Supreme Court decision from nearly 70 years ago is the reason why the lawsuit was rejected by lower courts. Widely known as the Feres Doctrine, it prohibits service members from filing malpractice suits related to their service. The Court based its decision on the fact that the Federal Tort Claims Act prohibits military personnel from suing federal employees for negligence.
The military has argued that the Feres Doctrine prevents frivolous lawsuits over decisions made in the heat of combat. However, critics argue that it’s interpreted too broadly when it prohibits medical malpractice suits that would be viable if they involved civilian victims and medical facilities.
In his dissent, Justice Thomas noted that “denial of relief to military personnel…will continue to ripple through our jurisprudence as long as the Court refuses to reconsider (this issue).” He noted that Congress has also failed to deal with the injustices inherent in the interpretation of the Feres Doctrine.
That may be changing. Rep. Jackie Speier, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, recently introduced a bill to create an exemption for military malpractice suits in the Federal Tort Claims Act. Her bill is named after a Green Beret who blames Army doctors for failing to diagnose his lung cancer, which is now at Stage Four.
He also has a lawsuit pending. However, his attorneys say they anticipate the same roadblocks as other suits have faced. One says, “Congress now has the opportunity to fix this injustice. We need to stand up and ask Congress to support our troops.”
If you or a loved one has been harmed because of negligence by military medical personnel, regardless of the way the law is currently interpreted, it may be wise to seek legal guidance to determine your options.