In 1950, the United States Supreme Court heard and decided the case of Feres v. United States, 340 U.S. 135 (1950). The widow of an Army Lieutenant had brought suit against the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) after a fire in barracks housing killed her husband. The Supreme Court dismissed her case against the government and held that the government was not liable for injuries to armed forces members within the activities related to military service.
This ruling, often dubbed the Feres Doctrine, has been stretched to cover lawsuits ranging from sexual assault, attacks in the workplace, and medical malpractice. Veterans advocates often argue that this application of the law creates an untenable disparity between civilians and uniformed military members. A service member and a civilian could see the same doctor at the same military hospital on the same day for the same (mis)treatment and only the civilian could seek monetary damages in civil suit. It does not even matter that these events happen hundreds of miles from any combat zone and in peacetime.
This controversial decision has come under renewed scrutiny only within the last decade after the injury and death of soldiers related to misdiagnoses or mistreatment by military hospitals. Stories of malpractice through soldiers like MSG Richard Stayskal and SGT Jeremy Seals have gained enough public attention and support to prompt significant changes to the law as it has existed for over sixty-years.
The work of advocates and families throughout the military lead to the SFC Richard Stayskal Military Medical Accountability Act of 2019. This bill permitted medical malpractice lawsuits at military facilities with an exception for those in areas of armed combat. The Feres Doctrine was successfully challenged for the first time with this bill’s inclusion in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020.
Despite this success, the full impact has yet to be determined as there is not a substantial body of litigation under the new law. Families, such as the Stayskal’s, have also not yet received compensation from the government despite “winning” their claims over two years ago. While a step in the right direction, it should come as no surprise that both the government and the law “step” very slowly. Only with more time will we see the true nature of this landmark change.