Clarence Thomas rebukes Supreme Court refusal to hear case on military medical malpractice lawsuits

By | May 20, 2019

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas rebuked his fellow justices for declining to hear a case challenging a rule that blocks service members from suing the government for medical malpractice, known as the Feres doctrine.

“Such unfortunate repercussions — denial of relief to military personnel and distortions of other areas of law to compensate — will continue to ripple through our jurisprudence as long as the court refuses to consider Feres,” Thomas wrote in a dissent of the high court’s decision Monday.

The case was brought forward after Rebekah “Moani” Daniel, a labor and delivery nurse in the Navy, died in 2014 at Naval Hospital Bremerton in Washington state. She had given birth to her daughter Victoria and bled to death. Daniel’s husband, Coast Guard veteran Walter Daniel, filed a wrongful death lawsuit arguing that the medical team at the hospital did not take appropriate actions to prevent postpartum hemorrhaging.

The lower courts declined to hear the lawsuit due to the Feres doctrine, which was established in 1950 from Feres v. United States. The Supreme Court at that time determined the government could not be held responsible “for injuries to members of the armed forces arising from activities incident to military service.”

Thomas argued that “Feres was wrongly decided and heartily deserves the widespread, almost universal criticism it has received.” Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also voted with Thomas to advance the case.

Walter Daniel, who filed a petition last year for the Supreme Court to hear his case, said the decision fails to protect others from experiencing the same fate as his late wife.

“Sadly, the justice system remains closed to our family, our colleagues and the families who commit their lives to military service,” he said in a statement. “Victoria and I won’t have the opportunity to learn what led to Moani’s death, and to ensure others don’t experience the same tragedy.”

The effort to reevaluate the Feres doctrine remains active. Walter Daniel’s lawyer Andrew Hoyal said he plans to work with members of Congress to see if legislation can be passed overturning the Feres doctrine.