The Legacy of Feres: Negligent Military Doctors Amputate Airman’s Legs After Botching Gallbladder Surgery

150px-Seal_of_the_US_Air_Force.svgWe have another military medical malpractice case and another reason for Congress to legislatively negate the infamous Feres doctrine. Airman Colton Read, 20, went into the David grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento for a simple gallbladder operation — only to end up a double amputee due to malpractice.

For years, I have written articles as both an academic and as a columnist against the Feres Doctrine, which bars lawsuits against the military for negligence. For a discussion of the Feres Doctrine and its untold harm, click here and here and here. Such cases occur routinely but Congress refuses to act. (here and here and here).

In this case, Read went in for simple laparoscopic surgery to remove his gall-bladder. However, about 10 am (an hour before the surgery) a nurse ran out screaming that they needed blood. The Air Force surgeon had cut his aortic valve. However, the Air Force waited until 5:30 to send him to US Davis for a vascular surgeon. He had lost so much blood that doctors had to amputate both legs.

I can barely write about these stories after watching these tragedies for over a decade of study — only to see Congress ignore pleas from judges, professors, and military families for action. My study of the Feres Doctrine detailed about malpractice and negligence appeared much higher in the military than in the private area where there is a deterrent in the form of legal recourse for soldiers, sailors, air force personnel, and Marines. It is simply cheaper to maim or kill our military personnel. If members are serious of granting the very best for our military, they can start by giving them the same basic protections as other citizens.

For the full story, click here.

28 thoughts on “The Legacy of Feres: Negligent Military Doctors Amputate Airman’s Legs After Botching Gallbladder Surgery

  1. Being a Vet,with some glacoma issues,the VA has offered a new “COLD LASER” surgey to slow down the process of glacoma.

    After reading this I am really skeptical.

  2. This is akin to the no accountability doctrine currently soaking into presidential policy theory.

    It leads to a bigger problem which is then orders of magnitude more difficult to correct.

  3. this is just sickening. along with stories about subpar conditions in VA hospitals, the lack of proper body armor, soldiers getting electrocuted while they brush their teeth and people here wonder why I refuse to send my kids into the military. if they wanted to wear uniforms they can work at McDoalds. The pay is about the same and chances are if something goes wrong with the fryer their employer will take responsibility.

  4. This is part of my conundrum: Is it wise to make concessions on tort reform to the AMA and the rest of the medical profession in return for their support on health care reform, or do the dangers of the Feres doctrine show us how important accountability is for deterrence?

  5. A dear friend specialized in emergency medicine. I’ve watched him cry like a baby when telling stories of ER and surgery mishaps. This kind of thing happens far too often, and refusing to hold anybody accountable is wrong.

    Decisions in the battlefield are one thing, but mishaps in a stateside hospital cannot be swept under the rug. Feres must be changed.

  6. I live near an Air Force hospital. I one asked a neighbor who worked there if it was OK for a civilian to use the ER. He said, “only if you want to die.”

  7. And, if by chance, Airman Reed is ever directed to this blog; know that you are in our hearts and prayers. You stood up for us, now, the least we can do, is stand up for you.

  8. Sleeper Decision Could Have Impact on Litigation


    Published: July 20, 2009


    The most consequential decision of the Supreme Court’s last term got only a little attention when it landed in May. And what attention it got was for the wrong reason.

    But the lower courts have certainly understood the significance of the decision, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, which makes it much easier for judges to dismiss civil lawsuits right after they are filed. They have cited it more than 500 times in just the last two months.

    Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dissented from the decision, told a group of federal judges last month that the ruling was both important and dangerous. “In my view,” she said, “the court’s majority messed up the federal rules” governing civil litigation.

  9. Bob,Esq., thanks for the link. I’ve been wondering when someone would bring up the Iqbal decision. I read the whole damn thing and found it to be a complete abomination. My first thought was “plausible” to whom? What is the standard? My second thought was does anyone believe that Justice Scalia would find “plausible” allegations that Vice Pres. Cheney has authorized and approved the torture of human beings? After all, how can someone you go duck hunting with really be a bad guy?

    Does the decision mean that in real life nothing “implausible” ever occurs which would give rise to a cause of action? Since when did we decide that federal judges could rule on a motion to dismiss by considering the credibility of factual allegations? I guess we can eliminate the summary judgment and judgment on the pleadings rules.

    The Iqbal decision also highlights the absurdity of the Sotomayor hearings. The Democrats could have used the Iqbal decision to good advantage in explaining the importance of diversity and the effect that one’s background and experience brings to bear on the analysis of facts. Unless we believe that pleadings must be viewed from the standpoint of an “old white guys” plausibility test, it should be obvious that a factual scenario which might appear implausible to Roberts, Alito and Scalia might fall within the scope of experience of a “wise Latina.”

    I could go on, but I don’t have the time. This decision should cause a lot more debate than it has so far.

  10. Thanks for being so passionately concerned about the Feres doctrine. It continually surprises me that our representatives can’t see how unjust this situation is and, especially how tragic is this particular case.

  11. Prof. Turley,
    This wasn’t malpractice, it was a felony. These doctors and their superiors should be drummed out of the service so that they cannot hurt any other soldier.

  12. Het jerkwad-

    Get your FACTS straight before spouting off… You are simply regurgitating what you read on Fox News, etc……

    There is WAY more to this story than presented here… Bottom line is you are presenting a “story” from the families’ perspective – and NOT the facts…

    Grow up!

  13. We all agree that something does not add up. If you go by the article written–why was the surgeon needing to do an incision an hour prior to the surgery? That time would be with the nurse and Anesthesiologist Preparing for the Surgery. Therefore it appears the article has mistated who caused the original trauma, typo, or something else. My question would be with regard to compensation of the damages done to this poor person (regardless of is military background-although I respect it highly) would be –are the doctor(s) involved contracted specifically with the military hospital? (meaning they have a signed contract of limitations to practice only with that hospital (military) and are the agents, employees or extended representatives of the hospital)–if not then they are individuals and would be responsible as an individual practice for the “human error”. Seeing the error was far below the acceptable Standard of Care. Mistakes happen, human error happens, but the standard of care should reflect immediate diagnosis, managment, and monitoring and/or immediate action. In this case immediate action would of been (in my opinion) the best cause of action. How long did it take??? I do not have all the info so I am just passing on my opinion from what I have read. My foodforthought.
    I wish the family involved my prayers and well being!

  14. I have lived on Andersen AFB Base for three years and had personally heard my doctor outside of my door talking about an upcoming surgery with the nurse and how it was his first time doing the surgery and he was going to just “wing it” We have had 3 malpractice issues (that I know of) two resulting in death. This may seem surprising but it is the truth. Military healthcare is very much rationalized and to think that people want universal healthcare? Because this is what you are getting.

  15. melanie writes: have lived on Andersen AFB Base for three years and had personally heard my doctor outside of my door talking about an upcoming surgery with the nurse and how it was his first time doing the surgery and he was going to just “wing it” We have had 3 malpractice issues (that I know of) two resulting in death. This may seem surprising but it is the truth. Military healthcare is very much rationalized and to think that people want universal healthcare? Because this is what you are getting.

    you mean you were eavesdropping and heard part of a conversation.
    clearly there is malpractice in VA settings and sometimes it seems as if military doctors have to make do with less than doctors in the private sector.
    this is hardly rationing health care. but you did not mean that did you?
    sometimes it’s hard to know if people mean what they write, so I am asking for clarification. did you mean rationalizing poor health care of rationing of health care.

    btw. no one is suggesting universal health care.
    single payor is not the same. neither is reform and oversight of the insurance industry.

  16. The Feres Doctrine boggles the mind. This needs to be overturned. My son Michael Fremer was killed at Fort Polk, La on 2/13/08 because of Army Negligence during a training exercise. The Army can not be held accountable because of the Feres Doctrine. Why is the Army exempt from being held accountable for Negligence? Our young men and woman are risking their lives. This is how our country treats the soldiers and the families? How many others die because of poor training? It seems the Army keeps this quiet.

    There are other cases that involve the feres Doctrine. For example Medical Malpractice in the army. Also Marines being exposed to Toxic chemicals on US Bases. The Military is exempt from being held accountable on all of these matters. The Feres Doctrine needs to be overturned.

    This is a petition to overturn the Feres doctrine:

  17. Sixteen years ago, this December, I learned of the FD.

    I have been fighting to reform it ever since. Now, I am focused on a book to explain what I know after 85,000 hours of work on this issue.

    Sadly, a lawyer out of school will get more time and attention than we victims and survivors.


    Jeff Trueman

  18. Time sensitive: Please forward this e-mail to everyone you know!

    Remembering the meaning of Veterans Day. Remembering our Soldiers.
    Remembering the People.

    As Veterans Day approaches, November 11, 2009, for some it’s a day of honor, for others it’s just a day off from work, and for many businesses a veterans day sale! It is, in fact, a day of remembrance. One honoring all those who have fought and died for our country, and for showing gratitude and respect for those who are currently fighting and dying for our country. Those people are your fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, friends, relatives, somebody you know or even yourself.

    You are receiving this letter because we know that you are going to act on it and to do the right thing in response.

    U.S. Military Health Care has a law called the Feres Doctrine that does not allow military doctors to be held accountable for negligent care. That means that if you or a loved one is seriously injured because of military medical malpractice that you are pretty much S.O.L.!

    NY Congressman Hinchey’s Bill; The Carmelo Rodriguez Military Malpractice Accountability Act of 2009 H.R. 1478 and NY Senator Schumer’s sister bill S. 1347 will change that! These Bills have a great chance of being voted into law very soon, but only if everyone of us tells our congressmen and senators that we, their respective constituents insist that they at the very least vote in favor of these bills or better still become cosponsors of the bills. That’s all you have to do! LET THEM KNOW NOW that you support the bills too!

    We’ve made it so easy for you to follow through. Here’s how.

    1. Attached to this email, you will find The Veterans Day Proposal and a Petition for all of you to sign. Have everyone you know sign it too.

    We would like to collect as many signed petitions by the 25th of November, so please hurry. Even if you don’t live in Oregon, send your petition to us and we can get it to the right place.

    2. Also please CALL your senators and congressman and have everyone you know do so as well on Veterans Day. Let them know where you stand on this issue! There is information on finding your Congressmen in The Veterans Day Proposal.

    3. Please PASS this email onto your friends and families. We need to make and impact on November 11, 2009

    4. Please visit for updates and additional information.

    Thank you for making Veterans Day 2009 the day you can truly say “I supported the troops!” “I supported our veterans!” “I support the lives of people I care about!”

    If you have any questions and want to speak to someone directly, simply call us at

  19. I wonder if the first surgeon could be sued under the rationale that the Feres doctrine only protects reasonable behavior and the type of negligence and error that ordinarily occurs in the real world and the imperfect world of medicine. I would try an argument that the first surgeon was grossly outside of acceptable standards. The first surgeon should have removed himself from the operation immediately upon cutting the aortic valve. Worse yet, if there was a threat of the vasculature in the legs collapsing, iv needles should have been put in place so that fluids could be injected if needed. I would try to sue both the surgeon personally and the military, irrespective of the Feres doctrine. The Feres doctrine could not be said to have anticipated such objectionalbe treatment, and certainly not to condone it in advance.

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