Medical malpractice at military hospitals and medical facilities poses a major problem.
However, due to a U.S. Supreme Court decision from the 1950s, active duty service members face great difficulty when it comes to bringing a medical malpractice claim against military doctors and hospitals.
The Military Times reports that active duty members of the military filed more than 2,100 administrative malpractice claims between 2010 and 2015.
Sadly, the vast majority of these claims could never move forward due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Feres v. United States – a case that gave rise to the “Feres Doctrine.”
The doctrine limits active duty military members’ ability to bring tort claims – including medical malpractice – against the U.S. government and its entities.
How Does the Feres Doctrine Restrict Military Medical Malpractice Claims?
The Feres decision involved three separate claims against the U.S. government. The plaintiff in each case suffered an injury while serving on active duty in the military. They brought their claims under the Federal Torts Claim Act (FTCA).
The FTCA is a federal law. It gives private parties the right to bring tort claims against the U.S. government in many different situations. However, in Feres, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that active duty military members could not bring a FTCA claim if their injury was “incident to service.”
For example, if a member of the U.S. Army suffered an injury in battle while charging up a hill, the injury would be deemed to be the product of a job-related hazard, or “incident to service.”
Since Feres, the U.S. government has broadly interpreted what “incident to service” means. Unfortunately, the interpretation has led to military members being denied the ability to bring a FTCA claim based on medical malpractice – even when the medical error occurred while treating a condition that had no relation to their actual service.
Childbirth Case Tests Limits of Feres Doctrine
In June 2016, The Military Times reported on a settlement between an active duty military member and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The case indicates that the Feres doctrine may have its limits.
In the case, an Air Force captain alleged that her daughter suffered serious brain and nerve damage due to medical malpractice that occurred during the child’s birth at a military hospital in 2009. The Air Force captain was on active duty at the time of the incident.
Under the Feres Doctrine, the Air Force captain would have no right to sue the military for her own harm caused by the alleged malpractice – but what about the rights of her infant daughter?
No court has ruled on whether a child injured in such a situation would have the right to seek a recovery under the Feres doctrine. However, some legal observers opine that the infant would, in fact, have the right to bring a claim.
Because the case settled for an undisclosed amount, resolution of this question will have to wait until the issue surfaces again.
Should the Supreme Court Revisit the Scope of the Feres Doctrine?
The Feres decision may have created a broad standard regarding when active duty military members can bring any type of tort claim against the federal government.
This standard can lead to unjust and, quite frankly, heartbreaking outcomes, especially in cases that involve medical malpractice.
In fact, as courts currently interpret Feres, any injury that an active duty military member suffers while receiving medical treatment could be considered to be “incident to service.”
For example, The Military Times points to a tragic 2013 case in which a 33-year-old active duty Navy lieutenant died from excessive blood loss during childbirth at a naval hospital in the state of Washington.
If this incident occurred outside of the military setting, the victim’s family would have been able to seek justice by bringing a medical malpractice claim against the individual medical professionals and facility responsible for her death.
However, under the current interpretation of the Feres Doctrine, the lieutenant’s family was barred from taking any legal action against the hospital. Her death was considered to be “incident to service.”
When one takes a close look at such an outcome, it becomes clear that the Feres Doctrine should be revisited.
As our law firm has written several times on this blog, the civil justice system plays a key role in holding hospitals and individual medical professionals accountable for their negligence and in promoting changes that ultimately prevent medical errors.
It makes little sense to allow the Feres Doctrine to be applied in a way that it ultimately prevents negligent medical care providers from being held accountable and halts advances in improving the quality of care for active military members.
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If you or a loved one suffered harm due to suspected medical negligence, contact us to discuss your case in a free and confidential consultation.
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