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Legal Review: Feres Doctrine Stands After Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Case

By Medical Malpractice Attorney John H. Fisher of John H. Fisher, PC

When patients suffer from medical negligence, they can file a lawsuit and receive compensation for damages in a court of law, unless you are an active service member in the United States military.

For the 1.3 million active duty military, Feres legal doctrine prevents medical malpractice lawsuits from being filed against the United States government. While one case recently tried — and failed — to challenge the law by appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, there has been a push to grant our military members the same justice and rights as citizens.

On March 9, 2014, Lt. Rebekah “Moani” Daniel died four hours after giving birth to her daughter, Victoria, at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Bremerton, Washington, where Lt. Daniel lost more than a third of her body’s volume of blood from post-partum hemorrhaging.

As a result of the 69-year-old Feres doctrine, Lt. Daniel and her heirs are prohibited from seeking justice by filing a medical malpractice lawsuit against military personnel or military medical facilities. Lt. Daniels’ widower, Walter Daniel, alleges medical malpractice in his wife’s death and has been arguing that fact in the lower courts.

Feres v. United States is a landmark 1950 case that established service members or their families cannot file medical malpractice claims. Feres is an archaic law and one that several Supreme Court justices have denounced over the years. Originally, the law was only meant to keep troops from filing a claim if they were hurt as a result of combat, not when they were removed from combat settings. Mr. Daniel has not been successful in overturning the Feres doctrine after the Supreme Court refused to take up the case.

For now, the Feres doctrine remains intact. “It is a disgrace that the country does not provide justice for the men and women who risk their lives for our nation every day,” says John Fisher of John H. Fisher, PC. “This case deserved to be heard by the Supreme Court, and it is tragic that it was not. This means that our troops will continue to be denied justice while serving our country.”

The Military Health System has changed dramatically in the 69 years since Feres was first adopted. While Mr. Daniel’s petition may have resulted in failure, advocates for overturning the Feres doctrine are calling for a change that will grant U.S. service members the same rights as those they protect.

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