The Feres Follies: Sacrificing our Soldiers to Protect Military Incompetence

When the Supreme Court created the Feres Doctrine in 1950, it barred all injuries that are “incident to service,” a prohibition that effectively blocked any negligence lawsuit by a servicemember against the military. This doctrine extends to a wide array of businesses maintained by the military – from movie theaters to bowling alleys to restaurants to gasoline stations. Many are profit-making enterprises operated by civilians under contract with the military, yet they are still immune from lawsuits by military personnel.

Consider just a few of the dismissed cases from the Feres follies:

Sailors Nollie Costo and Christopher Graham drowned while off-duty on a recreational rafting trip arranged through their naval base. The trip was directed by civilian managers and guides who were accused of ignoring danger in the river in Washington state.

Soldier Julius Pringle was severely injured at a bar on a military reservation in Kansas that served both civilians and military personnel. He said the military managers allowed a gang to effectively take up residence at the bar. After Pringle had words with members of the gang, he alleged, managers had him thrown outside into the midst of waiting gang members. He was beaten so severely that he suffered brain damage.

Lt. Joseph McConnell was killed while waterskiing after a boat rented in Arizona from an Air Force recreation center surged out of control because of a mechanical failure and hit him.

While on furlough, airman John Chambers drowned at a military pool that, his family said, lacked proper lifeguards and basic safety equipment.

Marine Corps military policeman Brian Millang was at a family picnic in a military park area when he saw a speeding military police vehicle about to run over an 18-month-old child. Millang bravely pulled the child to safety but was then hit, sustaining severe injuries.

Feres has been used to bar servicemembers from suing civilian agencies. Coast Guard Lt. Commander Horton Johnson was killed while piloting a helicopter after the Federal Aviation Administration, a civilian agency, allegedly relayed incorrect data via radar and crashed him into the side of a mountain.

While federal law prohibits sexual harassment and gives women the right to sue, they cannot sue if they wear a uniform.

In Illinois, eight women sued the Army for “harassment and retaliation, including rape, sodomy, unwelcome sexual advances and touching, requests for sexual favors, sexual innuendos, harassing phone calls, threats of physical harm, non-consensual sex and duress.” A federal court dismissed the lawsuit because the Army’s tolerance of this misconduct would still implicate “important questions regarding the management of military personnel.”

While civilian businesses spend money on insurance and accident avoidance, the military is allowed to run competing businesses, avoid these costs and pocket the profits. Those injured are sent back into the military medical system, where they are stripped of malpractice protection under the very same doctrine.