Commentary: Renewed hope for changes to Feres

U.S. Marine Corp veteran and Army Soldier Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal was selected for Special Forces Underwater Operations School. To attend, he needed medical clearance for a lung injury he sustained while taking enemy fire in Iraq 2004. In January 2017, an Army doctor gave Stayskal clearance to attend the school based on a CT scan.

Shortly after his training began, Stayskal experienced worsening symptoms, including shortness of breath, coughing blood and difficulty breathing. Five months later, he attempted to seek immediate medical attention for his deteriorating health, but was denied faster care.

By June, Stayskal obtained care at a civilian facility where another CT scan and biopsy confirmed he had progressed lung cancer. According to Stayskal, the civilian pulmonologist was shocked the Army doctor who cleared him back in January did not identify the visible tumor in his right lung. The doctor explained that had the scan been read correctly and the tumor identified then, Stayskal would have had a 90 percent survival rate.

Stayskal quickly hired an attorney who explained that there was nothing she could do for him because of the Feres doctrine.

The Feres doctrine is a longstanding legal holding that can be summarized into one principle: Service members do not have the right to sue the federal government for suspected negligence or wrongful death.

This doctrine was created in 1950 when a Supreme Court ruling held that the United States cannot be liable for injuries to service members that happen ’incident to service.’ The definition of this phrase, ’incident to service,’ has been broadened and stretched over the past 70 years to include all manners of alleged negligence.

Despite pushback, Congress declined to change the Federal Tort Claims Act, which would overturn Feres and allow service members some kind of restitution.

In December 2019, Congress broke their silence on the issue of the Feres doctrine; largely due to Stayskal’s persistence and story. The same attorney that deflated Stayskal’s hopes for justice through the courts, helped on his mission to convince Congress to change the language of the FTCA.

In 2019, Congress passed the Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal Military Medical Accountability Act that created a compromise.

This law established a claims system where service members and their families can file a claim for medical malpractice subject to a few key limitations. The U.S. Army claims service has specialized medical malpractice lawyers that give guidance to potential claimants on all the applicable limits of this law.

Among other restrictions, the alleged negligence must have occurred in a Department of Defense facility and the claim must be filed within two years of the incident.

Furthermore, payments to recompense for pain and suffering are currently capped at $600,000, and damages are reduced based on other benefit systems like the Veterans Affairs disability compensation. Although this act does not eliminate Feres; it provides a method for some recuperation and may be the first step toward greater changes to come.