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Military' Medical Malpractice Shield Disputed

May 3, 2011

According to a recent Associated Press article, veterans, military families and others who oppose the military' medical malpractice shield finally have some hope in bringing about some overdue changes to the Feres Doctrine which was established in 1950. This doctrine ultimately equates injuries sustained from military medical mistakes to battlefield wounds and protects the government from billions of dollars in liability claims.

These vets and relatives of military personnel are making their plight for medical malpractice liability known rallying around a case they consider the best chance in years to put an end to this governmental protection. According to the article, the U.S. Supreme Court has asked for more information from attorneys concerning the case of a 25-year-old noncommissioned officer who died after a nurse put a tube down the wrong part of his throat after a routine surgical procedure. The Supreme Court will decide next month whether or not to hear the case.

The court case at the center of attention involves the death of Air Force Staff Sgt. Dean Patrick Witt, who was hospitalized in 2003 for what should have been a routine appendectomy at Travis Air Force Base. After the successful surgery, a nurse anesthetist inserted a breathing tube into his esophagus instead of his trachea or airway. This mistake ultimately deprived his brain of oxygen and he died three months later after being taken off of life support. Although the nurse subsequently admitted her mistake and surrendered her state license, federal courts denied the legal claim by Witt's widow, stating that there was no recourse due to the Feres Doctrine.

The effort to change the law has gotten wide support from military officers and veterans groups. Many Congressional reps oppose changing the existing law and the article points out that the Congressional Budget Office estimated it would cost the government an average of $135 million every year in claims if the law was repealed.

According to the law firm representing the family of Witt, "We've given them a case that presents them with the best opportunity to fix this in a long time; they're the ones who broke it so they are in the best position to fix it." Chicago medical malpractice lawyer Jason Kroot is also eager see this law changed so that veterans and their families can seek compensation for gross cases of medical malpractice. As he asks, why should veterans be deprived of the same rights ordinary citizens are given simply because veterans have put their life on the line to serve our country.

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