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Military protected from medical malpractice by Feres Doctrine

In 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court made an interpretation of the Federal Tort Claims Act that effectively prevents anyone from suing the military over physical harm or death that occurs incidental to military service. The Feres Doctrine prevents those who have suffered harm from medical malpractice from holding the military responsible for mistakes or wrongful actions. It is unclear how many Arizona residents may have suffered harm for which they are unable to seek justice.

In Jan. 2017, an army sergeant went for a routine medical examination before attending dive school for the Army Special Forces. In March, he started struggling to keep up with the physical routine. Shortly afterwards, he started to experience difficulty breathing and then began to cough up blood, small quantities at first and then more measurable amounts. Two visits to emergency rooms -- one on base -- failed to produce an accurate diagnosis. Later, an appointment with a pulmonary specialist and a CT scan revealed the presence of a lung tumor.

Subsequent surgery led to a stage IV lung cancer diagnosis as the cancer had spread to his spine, hips and internal organs. The sergeant later learned that the tumor was first spotted during his January appointment. He has filed a civil lawsuit, though the Feres Doctrine may cause the case to be dismissed. There have been several other cases that have involved alleged malpractice, including a woman who died shortly after childbirth, but they were all dismissed due to this doctrine.

There are only two ways that the doctrine can be overturned; by the U.S. Congress reforming that portion of the Federal Tort Claims Act or by a Supreme Court ruling. Arizona families who have lost loved ones due to medical malpractice involving a military hospital should still consult an experienced attorney at the first opportunity. The law is complex and constantly changing, and patients who have been hurt by a military doctor or facility -- or their surviving families -- will want to investigate all available options for legal recourse. 

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