Families of active duty military service members sometimes learn too late a shocking fact about the military medical care system: lack of accountability when someone has been injured or killed by malpractice. The latest victim is Cindy Wilson, an Air Force technical sergeant who bled to death after a cesarean section delivery due to an artery that was cut during the operation and not found until she had lost an entire body’s volume of blood.
As described in an article by Bill Sizemore in The Virginian-Pilot, after the death of their 37-year-old daughter at Langley Air Force Base, Tommy and Connie Wilson learned about the “Feres doctrine.” That is the name of the U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1950 in which the Court ruled that the military was immune from lawsuits concerning injuries to active duty service members caused by negligence of other service personnel, even if that malpractice was egregious.
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley was quoted in the article as calling the Feres doctrine “one of the most grotesque rules created in the history of this republic” – because it encourages lack of safety practices in military hospitals.
If military doctors injure someone who is not active duty military (such as a military family member or a veteran retired from service), the government is not immune from accountability. So if Ms. Wilson’s baby boy had been hurt during the delivery in which she was killed, the family could have sued for his injuries. But because she was active duty, the government was immune from suit under the Feres doctrine. Because that difference doesn’t make sense, a bill is now before Congress to lift the government’s immunity from malpractice cases no matter who the victim is.
You can read more about legal issues surrounding military malpractice at a special section of Patrick Malone’s law firm web site.