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Widower Hopes Supreme Court Will Overturn Ban on Military Injury Lawsuits

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on October 15, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

While the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) waives the sovereign immunity of the federal government under certain circumstances, but those circumstances don't include injury claims by members of the armed forces and their families for injuries arising out of or in the course of activity related to military service. That might make sense for combat injuries sustained on the field of battle -- after all, can you imagine if the government got sued every time a soldier was injured or killed?

But what about when a healthy 33-year-old woman, who happens to be a Navy lieutenant and giving birth in a military hospital, mysteriously bleeds to death within hours of childbirth?

Navy Lt. Rebekah Daniel 's widower, Walter Daniel (a former Coast Guard officer himself), is suing in a search for answers as to his wife's death. And he is now taking his wrongful death case to the Supreme Court to try and get around decades of precedent preventing injury lawsuits against the federal government involving active-duty military members.

Answers and Causes

"I've had no answers," Walter Daniel claims, regarding the Navy's handling of his wife's death, that occurred in the same maternity ward where she worked as a labor and delivery nurse. "It was utter chaos," he recalled of that day. "I remember multiple towels and sponges like they were trying to soak up the blood ... but it kept coming."

A Navy autopsy allegedly concluded Rebekah Daniel died of "natural" causes possibly linked to an amniotic fluid embolism. But her husband suspects she died from botched medical care that failed to stop her from hemorrhaging. "There was no timeline, no records of what steps were taken," Daniel claims. "I don't want this to happen to any other family."

Stars, Bars, and Barred Lawsuits

The legal principle blocking Daniel's lawsuit is known as the Feres Doctrine, stemming from a 1950 case in which the Supreme Court declared that the federal government could not be held liable under the FTCA for injuries to members of the armed forces arising from activities incident to military service. Late Justice Antonin Scalia railed against the idea in a dissent from another 1987 case upholding the doctrine. "Feres was wrongly decided," Scalia wrote, "and heartily deserves the widespread, almost universal criticism it has received."

Unfortunately, Feres persists despite that criticism. But Daniel's lawyer, Andrew Hoyal hope this case will warrant another look from the Supreme Court. "We thought if we're ever going to take a shot at the Feres doctrine, this is the case to do it," Hoyal said, after Daniel's case has been dismissed from lower courts. "It was clear negligence. It was an awful situation. And every civilian in the country would be able to bring a lawsuit to get accountability, except for members of the service.

"She was treated differently because she had lieutenant's bars."

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