The Legal Implications of Malpractice
Claims in Military Medical Procedures
A proposal for the Department of Defense (DOD) to review claims and pay compensation for military medical malpractice was included in the final draft of the 2020 defense budget bill earlier this month, granting some relief to military servicemembers and their families from the “Feres Doctrine.”
The Feres Doctrine was established in the 1950s and stated that the United States is not liable for injuries members of the armed forces sustain from DOD medical providers. This legal doctrine was initially established to protect military medical providers, such as combat medics, from malpractice lawsuits that stem from field medicine provided to patients in combat zones.
Combat medics attending to wounded soldiers in combat zones have limited resources, limited medical tools, significant time pressures, and must make quick decisions that may differ from standard medical practice in a regular hospital or doctor’s office. For instance, if a soldier is hit in the arm with fragmented shrapnel in a combat zone, a combat medic may have to make the decision to amputate the soldier’s arm to stabilize them as quickly as possible, so that the injured soldier can be evacuated from the combat zone. However, a doctor at a hospital, under less immediately dire circumstances, may simply remove the shrapnel from the arm, and the patient would not suffer the loss of a limb.
“The Feres Doctrine was never intended to be an absolute shelter for medical providers from being held responsible for medical malpractice when they cause injury or death to a patient through negligent care or treatment,” personal injury Attorney Bennett Schiller of Schiller & Hamilton Law Firm stated. “Now, DOD medical providers are not held accountable to their patients, and as a result, patient care can suffer when there is no consequence for a doctor’s malpractice.”
Take Army Sergeant Richard Stayskal’s case, for instance. Sgt. Stayskal went to Fort Bragg’s Womack Army Medical Center when he was experiencing severe breathing problems. The doctors at Womack took a CT scan and sent him home. Although the doctors noted irregularities and a “possible mediastinal mass,” recommending a biopsy in his chart, none of this information was relayed to Stayskal or his wife, and they were sent home from the army hospital as though everything was fine.
Even after Stayskal began to show increasingly severe and concerning symptoms, such as coughing up blood, his care was not prioritized, and the growths noted in his medical charts were still not disclosed. Eventually, Stayskal saw a civilian pulmonary specialist and was diagnosed with terminal cancer months after irregularities were first recorded in his medical chart.
Medical malpractice is defined as a medical provider, such as a doctor, causing injury to a patient when the health care provided deviates from the standards set forth in the profession. Despite these doctors’ neglect to provide adequate treatment when they had suspicions that more tests should be conducted, Stayskal is prohibited from suing these doctors for medical malpractice under the Feres Doctrine.
Another example is Navy lieutenant Rebekah Daniel, who died as a result of alleged medical malpractice at a Navy hospital following childbirth. Daniel’s family’s claim for medical malpractice was denied under the Feres Doctrine.
One primary concern that stems from a DOD medical provider’s immunity from military medical malpractice is the fact that these providers are not being held responsible for their sometimes-fatal mistakes. Although this proposal allows the DOD to review claims, and perhaps even pay compensation on them, military members and their families are still barred from suing the government for military medical malpractice.
However, the proposal allows the Secretary of Defense to grant the review of a claim, settle, and even pay an administrative claim against the United States for the personal injury or death of a uniformed service member that was the result of military medical malpractice. This proposal marks the beginning of a new era in DOD medical professional liability.