U.S. Supreme Court Opens Door to Med Mal Lawsuit Against VA Doctor

We have often reported on the legal challenges faced by military service members (and sometimes their family) when trying to hold negligent doctors accountability for committing medical errors. Past rulings from the court have severely limited the rights military personnel to recover following these lapses. The general concern in the past was that allowing such suits for active military personnel might open up a can of worms for medical treatment conducting in the heat of battle. Obviously there is a higher likelihood of some adverse outcome if medical treatment is provided on a battlefield as opposed to a traditional hospital. However, that general principle has been extended such that military doctors are virtually immune from full accountability for their errors, even when making mistakes in the comfort of military hospitals far from anything that could be called a battlefield.

A few recent cases have been brought hoping to challenge past precedent and open the door for those severely hurt (or killed) as a result of poor care by military doctors. Yet most of those challenges have gone nowhere.

In a relatively new decision, however, a glimmer of hope was provided to those hoping to alter past precedents. In an opinion released earlier this week, Levin v. United States, the high court ruled that sovereign immunity principles did not apply to bar a medical malpractice suit by a military veteran who suffered harm as a result of a botch cataract surgery.

The Case
The specific incident in question involved a veteran who claims that he twice tried to revoke consent to the surgery over fears about the availability of proper equipment. Ultimately, the surgery was performed and he suffered injury in the aftermath leading him to file suit. The lawsuit eventually involved a claim of battery. This is a different legal argument than actual professional negligence (malpractice).

The subsequent legal arguments involve somewhat complex issues related to the Federal Tort Claims Act, government immunity, and a separate piece of legislation (known at the “Gonzalez Act”) that pertains to these suits. Lower courts initially dismissed the veteran’s claims. However, the Supreme Court took up the case, and in a ruling released earlier this week, they revived the claim.

According to a Courthouse News article on the situation, the court’s opinion hinges on textual interpretation of the original 1965 law which granted immunity and a revisionary law added in 1988. The ruling was mostly unanimous, with all nine justices agreeing to the underlying decision and logic that was written to get there. However, Justice Scalia did not concur to two footnotes that were included in the opinion, authored by Justice Ginsburg. The footnote exceptions are somewhat obtuse in their ultimate effect, and overall the unanimity of the opinion is important for those who may be seeking accountability in similar situations.

It is important to remember that this ruling is somewhat limited in scope, applying to a veteran who made a battery allegation. However, any decision that opens accountability and redress options following harmful malpractice is a step in the right direction.

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