You Be the Judge: Military Malpractice

A post-partum tragedy and a military loophole led to a dramatic legal clash. How would you rule?

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U.S. Navy Lt. Rebekah Daniel worked as a labor and delivery nurse at the Naval Hospital in Bremerton, Washington; her husband, Walter Daniel, was a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Coast Guard. In 2013, the couple learned that they were expecting a daughter. Rebekah arranged to resign from the Navy in May 2014, planning to use family leave after the birth of her daughter before her final detachment.

On March 9, 2014, Rebekah was admitted to Naval Hospital Bremerton, where she gave birth to her daughter. Although her pregnancy was considered low-risk, Rebekah suffered massive postpartum hemorrhaging and bled to death in 4 hours.

Following his wife’s unexpected death, Walter filed a Federal Tort Claim Act (FTCA) case against the Department of the Navy, claiming medical negligence and wrongful death resulting from the hospital’s failure to follow specific well-known standards of care to stop the bleeding, including an inexplicable delay in giving a life-saving blood transfusion.

In response, the attorney for the Department of the Navy argued, “Active-duty members are barred from seeking recovery against the government for injuries or wrongful death arising out of military service by the doctrine set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Feres v. United States 340 U.S. 135 (1950).” Since Rebekah was an active-duty service member at the time of her death, the case was dismissed.

Walter appealed the Navy’s decision to the U.S. District Court, explaining that the Feres doctrine did not apply because his wife’s injuries were not “incident to military service.” He argued that although his wife had active-duty status when she died, she had made it known she would not resume duties prior to her scheduled detachment from the Navy in May 2014 and had not engaged in military-related activities while in the hospital.

The U.S. Attorney moved to dismiss based on the Feres doctrine, and the District Court ruled, “Regretfully, this suit is barred by Feres.” The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal but noted, “If ever there were a case to carve out an exception to the Feres doctrine, this is it. But only the Supreme Court has the tools to do so.”

Historically, citizens could not sue the government because of the doctrine of sovereign immunity. But in 1946, Congress enacted the FTCA, allowing citizens to sue the government for damaging acts of negligence. In 1950, the Supreme Court established an exception to the FTCA with the Feres doctrine, ruling that military members cannot sue the government under the FTCA.

Over the years, the Feres doctrine has been widely criticized, but the Supreme Court has continually upheld it because the distinctive relationship between the government and the armed forces necessitates a uniform system of compensation for soldiers stationed around the world. Another factor is the “generous” compensation system for soldiers in the Veterans’ Benefits Act. The issue being, should a soldier killed in action receive less than a soldier who dies because of medical malpractice?

How Would You Rule?

In 2018, Walter petitioned the Supreme Court to reconsider his appeal; his petition was denied. In his dissent from the decision, Justice Clarence Thomas warned, “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 reconsider Feres.”

Daniel v. United States

Featured image: Shutterstock.

This article is featured in the July/August 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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