The U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to hear a case challenging a decades-old legal doctrine that prevents service members from seeking medical malpractice damages against military hospitals. The case involves the wrongful death of an Air Force staff sergeant who died due to a nurse’s error during an appendectomy in 2003.
In a 1950 case, Feres v. United States, the Supreme Court held that the federal government is not liable “for injuries to servicemen where the injuries arise out of or are in the course of activity incident to service.” Even though the staff sergeant in the present case was on leave when he required treatment for acute appendicitis, the legal analysis in such cases has focused on whether the patient was treated in a military hospital.
Veterans groups and health care advocates were optimistic that the Court would finally overturn the so-called Feres Doctrine, which Justice Antonin Scalia once called “wrongly decided” and deserving of broad criticism. But the only remaining legal recourse at this point appears to be congressional action.
U.S. Rep Maurice Hinchey of New York has pledged to reintroduce legislation that would eliminate immunity for military hospitals. While critics argue that allowing medical malpractice claims against the government would be expensive, advocates point to the cost savings inherent in a system that would hold military doctors and other health care professionals to a higher standard of care.
The most troubling aspect of the Supreme Court’s refusal to revisit the Feres Doctrine is the ongoing unfairness that military members must endure. Under the current system, federal prisoners have rights that we refuse to extend to the military service members and their families who endure so much on our country’s behalf.