The president and Congress have been falling over themselves to pledge better care for our wounded veterans in the wake of the scandal over “squalid” conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center that included mold, rats, cockroaches, rotting walls and callous treatment of patients. The president has empanelled the perfunctory “blue-ribbon commission.” The hospital walls have literally been whitewashed, so politicians can use them again as backdrops for speeches about “nothing being too good” for our troops. Yet no one is talking about the one thing that soldiers and sailors are most desperately lacking: They don’t need another spit and polish; they need lawyers.
For decades, our military members have been barred from suing for medical malpractice and other forms of negligence by the government. Whether it is a military doctor cutting off the wrong leg or a military gasoline station cutting a brake line, military personnel are not allowed to seek legal relief as other citizens can. The result is that they are victims of grotesque forms of negligence that have not been widely seen in the civilian world for more than a hundred years. In the civilian system, the threat of lawsuit serves a critical deterrence of negligence by the government, companies and others. A rational actor will avoid liability costs by taking measures to minimize accidents.
Most Americans do not know that we deny our servicemembers the basic right to sue when they are injured by negligence. They live in a type of tort-free zone where their injuries are subject to relatively minor levels of compensation. With the silent approval of Congress, we have created a system of discount citizens who become easy fodder for incompetent or even criminal actors. Indeed, killing a soldier on an operating table or in a military recreation area is a virtual bargain at a fraction of the cost of a full-value citizen.
The military’s loss of legal protections is the result of a 1950 Supreme Court ruling on a series of cases that became known collectively as the Feres Doctrine. It was named after Army Lt. Rudolph Feres, who died in a fire allegedly caused by an unsafe heating system in his New York barracks. In this and later opinions, the Supreme Court interpreted the Federal Tort Claims Act to effectively bar any tort actions by servicemembers, even though Congress exempted only “combat-related” injuries. The court unilaterally decided that even injuries in peacetime that are far removed from any combat-related function are still “incident to service.” Thus, in one of the Feres cases, a soldier was barred from suing after an Army doctor left a 30-by-18-inch towel inside him marked as property of the “Medical Department U.S. Army.”
As a result of the Feres Doctrine, there is little deterrence for military negligence beyond self-regulation, bad publicity or a political scandal. Because most accidents are isolated and military personnel tend to stay within the chain of command, these are relatively low risks for military tort-feasors. Moreover, since such accidents are not litigated, there is no reliable system to determine the rate of accidents in the massive military complex. Thus, we cannot reliably compare the accident rates in recreational or medical areas with their counterparts.
The military medical system is a prime example of what happens when patients are stripped of their legal protections. The military has long had many talented and dedicated doctors and nurses. Nevertheless, it also has long been plagued by scandals involving everything from doctors without medical licenses to medical treatment that borders on the medieval. Consider a few examples from the military malpractice-free-zone:
•Lt. Cmdr. Walter Hardin spent 11 months with red lesions from his legs to his torso that a doctor classified as eczema. It was correctly diagnosed as cancer shortly before he died.
•Sailor Dawn Lambert had to have a fallopian tube removed, but military surgeons left five sponges and a plastic marking device in her abdomen. They remained there for months until resulting complications forced a second surgery to remove her other fallopian tube, leaving her infertile. She was given $66 monthly in disability pay.
•Linda Branch lost her husband while he was serving in the Air Force after he was turned away twice by a military hospital that told him his intense stomach pains was nothing more than stomach flu. He died of a bowel obstruction.
•Navy Petty Officer Joe Cragnotti went to a military hospital with pneumonia, which is treatable with antibiotics. The doctor left it untreated, then Cragnotti suffered brain damage.
•Air Force Staff Sgt. Dean Patrick Witt had appendicitis but was repeatedly misdiagnosed and sent home with some antibiotics. When he finally collapsed at home, he was rushed into surgery. He came out brain-dead. It’s alleged that a series of malpractice led to his death, including the use of a pediatric rather than an adult device to open an airway when he had trouble breathing.
When civilian doctors leave a patient paralyzed or crippled for a lifetime of care, the family members often receive millions in compensation. In the military, the families receive a couple thousand dollars a month and, you guessed it, more military medical care. Dorothy Meagher found herself carrying for her son after he went in to have a cyst removed at a Navy hospital. Her family alleged that, due to an overdose of anesthetics and the failure of a Navy doctor to immediately call for assistance, her son was left a quadriplegic.
Many families in the military never know that they were the victims of malpractice because, without discovery, there is no routine way of forcing such disclosure. For example, Army Staff Sgt. Michael McClaran had a simple surgery for acid reflux. He said he was not told that the surgeon had severed two critical nerves — the cause of chronic respiratory and digestive problems.
Feres extends beyond medical malpractice. It bars lawsuits in a vast array of activities in such areas as travel, recreation, housing, restaurants, bars and service stations — military enterprises often run in competition with civilian businesses. Thus, when a rented water ski loses its brakes or a soldier is raped at a concert, the military invokes Feres and walks away immune from its own negligence.
Liberals and conservatives on the court — such as Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia — have denounced the court’s continued use of this doctrine, as have dozens of lower court judges. This doctrine has done more harm to military personnel and families than any court-made doctrine in the history of this country.
Congress must amend the Federal Tort Claims Act to put an end to this disastrous doctrine. We can no longer afford to leave our servicemembers in the hands of politicians who express shock every 10 years as new scandals regularly emerge. Some lawmakers knew of the appalling conditions at Walter Reed but took no legislative action.
The fact is that military hospitals are often treated as little more than a reservoir of human props for political photo ops. The only other part of Reed that members of Congress routinely visit is the VIP floor located on the top floor. Known as the Eisenhower Executive Nursing Suite, it’s where high-ranking politicians, jurists, generals, admirals and diplomats are treated. Of course, the politicians, judges and foreign dignitaries are allowed to sue for any negligence.
Former senator Bob Dole, who co-chairs the new blue-ribbon commission, was treated there and recently noted that he never saw anything to complain about. That is not surprising since, unlike the vermin-infested and mold-covered rooms of wounded soldiers, politicians are given suites that include fine carpets, antique furniture, separate dining rooms and fine china.
If members of Congress truly want the best for our troops, they should start by giving them the same legal protections that the members themselves enjoy. No one is asking for Congress to treat our soldiers as high-value VIPs, but simply full-valued citizens with the same protections as the people they are defending around the world.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. He is the author of a three-part study of the military, including its legal and medical systems.