In our highly litigious society, medical malpractice is not an uncommon concern and doctors carry expensive insurance to protect themselves against the worst-case scenarios. But not all malpractice cases are as straightforward as we tend to think, and charges can include cases of wrongful diagnosis leading to dangerous and unnecessary treatments. There are also cases of military medical malpractice, and these are unique, due to their unusual place within our legal system.
What sets military medical malpractice apart from other cases? Recent reports on cases such as that involving 33-year-old Navy Lieutenant Rebekah Moani Daniel shed light on this little recognized crisis.
When Lt. Daniel died due to improperly handled hemorrhaging shortly after giving birth at Naval Hospital Bremerton in 2013, her family was left devastated. But while such a case would typically result in a wrongful death lawsuit in a civilian hospital, Lt. Daniel’s status as an active duty member of the military means that her family can’t sue the doctors responsible.
Lt. Daniel’s family is bound by a rule known as the Feres doctrine that groups this tragic case with incidents such as injury or death while in battle. Certainly, it would be inappropriate to sue the military for death during battle, but Lt. Daniel died in a medical setting during an otherwise normal birth. Still, the medical professionals involved can’t be held responsible in the same way.
Times of Inaction
Several other major military malpractice cases hinge on similar moments where doctors failed to act. Lt. Daniel’s bleeding could have been controlled using a simple procedure that was delayed, while another officer, 21-year-old Nathan Hafterson died at a different naval hospital due to a medication reaction that could have been treated with a simple antidote. And in 2007, Marine Sgt. Carmelo Rodriguez died due to untreated melanoma. He was properly diagnosed, but his doctor never followed up on the diagnosis.
Such inaction would be considered criminal if a civilian doctor diagnosed cancer, or even a common cancer-causing virus like HPV, without pursuing appropriate screening and treatment. Civilian courts, however, are unable to take up these cases due to military restrictions.
A Civil Rights Crisis
While we typically think of our military members as among our most honored citizens, the reality of military medical malpractice is that the Feres doctrine actively strips service members of their civil rights. This is what legal ethicist and attorney Richard Custin claims about the cases, and calls it a form of discrimination against our military. How do we justify repeated deaths, unnecessary amputations, and other devastating medical scenarios in our military hospitals?
Who is protected by the Feres doctrine then? Only negligent doctors who fail to uphold the Hippocratic Oath and their obligation to first, do no harm. Our military members face long odds on the battlefield, putting their lives at risk for our safety. Hospitals, then, should be a safe haven where they can be treated with the utmost care.
What these military medical malpractice cases reveal, however, is the opposite.
Our military members deserve better.