Current U.S. law blocks men and women in the Armed Forces from suing their military doctors for poor care and harm caused by medical malpractice. The law, known as the Feres Doctrine, was designed to protect the military from liability in the event of injuries and illnesses incurred on the battlefield. It also bars legal action against the military from harm caused by a failure of doctors to meet an accepted standard of care. That may be changing as veterans, their families, and advocates seek to overturn the law with new legislation.
The Feres Doctrine
The ban on service members suing the government or military has its origins in the 1946 Federal Torts Claims Act. Congress passed this law to allow lawsuits against the federal government. Prior to the law the government was completely immune to legal action.
The Torts Act allowed for suing the government but with limitations. One of these banned service members from suing the government or military for harm that arose from combat. In 1950 the Supreme Court ruled on a case against a service member Feres, who had been harmed by radioactive weapons from a plane crash.
That ruling against Feres prevented him from recovering any damages from the government for the illness that resulted from the incident. The consequence of this ruling was to set the precedent that no service members could sue the government for harm from non-combat causes, including medical malpractice cases.
Service Members, Veterans, and Families Pushing for Law Change
The Feres Doctrine has long been criticized for limiting the rights of service members. Congress has taken steps to change the law, but so far unsuccessfully. It is getting renewed attention as 28-year-old Army Green Beret, Carson Thomas, and others like him have fought for change.
Thomas joined the Army in 2011 and reported pain in his groin in 2012. He continued to report that pain while stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado for the next two years. Doctors diagnosed hernias, gave him painkillers, and sent him back, over and over again.
After leaving the Army, Carson went to the VA hospital in Columbia, South Carolina and received a diagnosis of stage 3 testicular cancer. After two years of misdiagnoses, Carson ended up with a late stage cancer that could have been treated more successfully sooner. He is now cancer-free but is not able to have children.
Another Green Beret faced a similar situation. Richard Stayskal, a Special Forces diver, underwent a lung scan in 2017 to determine if damage from a bullet wound would prevent him diving. What the doctors who looked at that scan failed to notice was a large tumor. Six months later he ended up in the emergency room and was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer. He is now terminal and in stage 4.
Changing the Law
The latest bill to try to change the Feres Doctrine was introduced in early 2019. With Stayskal and other veterans and service members pushing for it, this is one bill that may finally make the difference. The SFC Richard Stayskal Military Medical Accountability Act of 2019 would allow service members to sue the U.S. government for injuries or deaths resulting from poor, inadequate medical care.
Anyone who has received a poor standard of care, who has been harmed by preventable medical mistakes, should be allowed to sue and recover damages. This includes the men and women injured by military medical mistakes. If you experienced substandard care, contact a medical malpractice lawyer for advice.