Medical errors can result in some of the most horrific injuries—and sometimes even wrongful death. The ability to hold doctors and other responsible through our judicial system is an important part of making those harmed by these errors whole again.
And yet, this right has been denied to military service members for years, ever since a 1950 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that the federal government could not be held liable for injuries to members of the armed forces arising from activities incident to military service—a policy thereafter known as the “Feres Doctrine.” Yet one man’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, linked to his wife’s death at a military hospital during childbirth, may finally be the end of this unfair policy, as we discuss below.
The story is about as tragic as they come, and especially infuriating, given that this particular wrongful death was in no way shape or form linked to military service. Navy Lt. Rebekah Daniel reportedly bled to death within hours of what was otherwise routine childbirth at a Washington state military hospital, and, four years later, her husband still has no idea how or why it happened because no one will provide him with details or a formal review of what happened.
His wrongful death claims and appeals were automatically dismissed due to the Feres doctrine, which led him to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case and allow service members to sue for medical malpractice just as every civilian can. If it is decided in his favor, this could affect not only approximately 1.4 million active-duty members but a total of 9.4 million beneficiaries served by the military health system.
Although the Feres Doctrine had already been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court previously, and since then, the court has refused to accept two petitions that would have led to its reconsideration, Feres has been narrowly upheld, drawing scathing criticism from the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who pointed out that the 1950 case was wrongly decided and deserves the “widespread, almost universal criticism it has received.”
Still, many have commented that, if there was ever a chance at defeating the Feres doctrine, this is the case to do it, given the clear negligence involved and the fact that the victim died in connection with childbirth, not military service. It is also important to note that there is no law putting forth these limitations; i.e. this interpretation is not included in the Federal Tort Claims Act, but was simply put in place by the one U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1950; meaning that Congress and the current U.S. Supreme Court have the ability to undo it, so to speak.