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Supreme Court refuses to hear Navy Lt.’s wrongful death case

The U.S. Supreme Court (Dreamstime/TNS)
May 22, 2019
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On Monday, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case that tested the 70-year-old Feres Doctrine, which specifically prohibits negligence claims by active duty military personnel against the United States government via sovereign immunity.

In 2015, former U.S. Coast Guard officer Walter Daniel filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government under the Federal Tort Claims Act when his 33-year-old wife died right after she delivered a baby girl, Newsweek reported.

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Rebekah “Moani” Daniel died from postpartum hemorrhaging at Naval Hospital Bremerton in Washington state.

Lower courts rejected the case because of the Feres doctrine.

About the Supreme Court’s decision, Daniel said, “Sadly, the justice system remains closed to our family, our colleagues and the families who commit their lives to military service. Victoria and I won’t have the opportunity to learn what led to Moani’s death, and to ensure others don’t experience the same tragedy.”

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While the court denied the petition to hear the case, Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg didn’t agree.

Justice Thomas wrote, “Such unfortunate repercussions – denial of relief to military personnel and distortions of other areas of law to compensate – will continue to ripple through our jurisprudence as long as the court refuses to consider Feres.”

He also cited the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion in a 1987 case, which said, “Feres was wrongly decided and heartily deserves the widespread almost universal criticism it has received.”

Opponents of the Feres doctrine agree that “the Supreme Court precedent is excessively broad and is misinterpreted and outdated when examining today’s Military Health System.”

Andrew Hoyal, Daniel’s attorney said, “The United States Supreme Court missed a clear opportunity to reexamine Feres, especially considering the sea change that has occurred since the court last addressed its bearing on medical malpractice cases seven decades ago. The legal underpinnings supporting this doctrine have eroded and shifted. The mission and nature of the Military Health System itself has been completely transformed. Our military personnel live and serve in a completely different world than when Feres was adopted, and it’s tragic that their legal rights have failed to keep pace.”

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But those in favor of the Feres doctrine think differently. They argue that order and discipline among service members will be degraded if they are allowed to sue the federal government for medical malpractice.

House lawmakers put forth a new bill earlier this month that would allow active duty military service members to bring medical malpractice lawsuits against the U.S. government.

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