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Law opens door for medical malpractice claims for soldiers

Until recently, military service members who suffered injuries as a result of the negligence of military doctors had few options for seeking compensation. That is because of a 1950 Supreme Court decision known as the Feres Doctrine, which prohibits service members from suing for damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act. For decades, this decision has left service members and their families in Arizona and elsewhere struggling because they had no recourse for justice when medical malpractice at the hands of military doctors resulted in injury or death to a service member.

The Feres Doctrine came about after the widow of an army lieutenant who died in a barracks fire filed a lawsuit under the FTCA, which grants plaintiffs the right to sue the government in cases of negligence. As the case made its way through the courts, two other complaints were added involving service members who were victims of medical malpractice following operations performed by military surgeons. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court decided that the FTCA does not apply to service members since the military apparently already has ways of dealing with such cases.

Many injured service members and their families disagreed, saying the loss or injuries they have suffered because of the gross negligence of military doctors or within the chain of command has left them struggling to survive. Dozens of lawsuits over the past 70 years have failed to overturn the Feres Doctrine to allow victims of malpractice or negligence a path to seek just compensation. However, a bill recently passed into law that allows service members to sue the Department of Defense for medical malpractice at the hands of a military physician.

The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act provides for the establishment of a new claims system for victims of medical malpractice by military doctors as outlined in the SFC Richard Stayskal Medical Accountability Act. This hard-won victory came about through the efforts of a soldier whose military doctors failed to diagnose his lung cancer until it was too late. While the NDAA and the Medical Accountability Act do not overturn Feres, they are a step in the right direction. Because of the complex rules for filing a claim, Arizona service members may benefit from seeking the guidance of an attorney with experience in medical malpractice laws.

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