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Feres Doctrine Challenged Again

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The law, which is known as the Feres Doctrine, came into existence in 1950 with the case of Feres v. US. The case, which involved a soldier who died as a result of a fire in the barracks, resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that established a parallel between military medical malpractice injuries and combat injuries. The ruling was based on the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946, which was originally intended to prohibit military members and their families from suing the US government for injuries and deaths that occurred on the battlefield. However, that interpretation of the law changed with Feres v. US and expanded to cover lawsuits for any injury ''incident to military service.''

The court case that is currently in front of the Supreme Court involves Air Force Staff Sgt. Dean Patrick Witt who was hospitalized at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California in 2003. Witt was admitted for an appendectomy but was left in a vegetative state after a nurse anesthetist introduced a breathing tube into his esophagus, instead of his trachea. As a result of the error, Witt was deprived of oxygen and had to be kept alive by means of life support for the final three months of his life. Although the nurse acknowledged fault and gave up her state license, federal courts were forced to refuse the legal claim presented by Witt’s wife due to the constraints of the Feres Doctrine. Out of concern for other military members who suffered injury while in military hospitals, Witt’s family decided to appeal.

The longstanding law has endured a number of failed attempts to overturn it but opponents of the law believe that this case just might succeed in accomplishing that. In 2009, a House bill introduced in the name of a 29 year old Iraq war veteran who died of misdiagnosed skin cancer, showed some promise but did not succeed in overturning the Feres Doctrine. Republicans lawmakers insisted that allowing such lawsuits would prove to be far too expensive, subjecting the federal government to billions of dollars in claims. According to an estimate by the Congressional Budget office, an overturning of the law could result in $135 million in claims each year.

However, others suggest that the overturning of the law would result in better care in military hospitals, therefore resulting in a reduction of medical malpractice claims. Those who oppose the longstanding law insist that it was not developed to prevent military personnel from seeking reparation for medical malpractice.

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