Critics of the long-standing and widely unpopular ban against military
medical malpractice cases are closely watching a case positioned to challenge
the law before the Supreme Court.
The law, referred to as the Feres Doctrine, effectively equates injuries
from medical mistakes with battlefield wounds.
The Witt Case
As reported by
Sign on San Diego, the U.S. Supreme Court has asked for more information from attorneys
and will decide next month whether to hear the case of a 25-year-old noncommissioned
officer who died after a nurse put a tube down the wrong part of his throat.
Although the nurse admitted her mistake, federal courts denied the legal
claim by Witt’s widow, saying their hands were tied by the Feres
Doctrine. Witt’s family appealed, aiming to help other service members
who get hurt in military hospitals.
The History of the Feres Doctrine
Opponents of the Feres Doctrine, including veterans groups and military
families, argue that the Federal Torts Claim Act of 1946, from which the
law is derived, was never intended to deprive servicemen and women of
a legal remedy for medical malpractice claims.
In fact, the Torts Claim Act was first narrowly interpreted to only prohibit
lawsuits for combat-related injuries and deaths. However, in
Feres vs. United States, the Court widened that exclusion to bar any lawsuits over injuries “incident
to military service” in denying a lawsuit involving a soldier who
died in a barracks fire.
Feres supporters claim that abolishing the doctrine would be too costly
for the federal government. However, as pointed out by Rep. Maurice Hinchey,
D-N.Y., who led a Congressional effort to overturn the law, the cost would
lower because the law would result in a better level of care in military
hospitals and fewer negligence claims.
“If there were a normal element of responsibility, there would be
less carelessness,” Hinchey said.