Can I Sue the United States if I Am Injured While on Active Duty?
Suing the United States government for an injury is difficult for anyone. Sovereign immunity protects governments from being sued without their consent. For military personnel, it is impossible to sue the United States government for injuries sustained while on active duty.
What is the Federal Torts Act?
Congress passed the Federal Torts Claims Act in 1946. Until then, citizens could not sue the federal government for injuries caused by government employees.
Before the passage of the Federal Tort Claims Act, a person could send a statement to Congress outlining their injuries and damages. House and Senate members would decide whether Congress should act regarding any of the “claims” submitted by an individual. The process was frustrating, complicated, and slow.
The Federal Tort Claims Act waives sovereign immunity for torts committed by a federal employee. A tort is an act that results in harm or injury to a person. Under the Federal Tort Claims Act, you can sue the United States to recover compensation for personal injuries caused by federal employees.
However, suing the federal government is not easy. The procedure for filing a lawsuit against the United States is complicated. There are strict filing deadlines and rules that govern claims against the federal government. Therefore, you would need the assistance of an attorney who has experience handling Federal Tort Claims Act cases.
Does the Federal Tort Claims Act Apply to Active Service Members?
Under the Feres Doctrine, service members cannot sue the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act for injuries occurring while on active duty. The doctrine comes from the United States Supreme Court ruling in the case of Feres v. United States.
In 1950, Ralph Feres was killed in a barracks fire at Pine Camp, New York. He was a lieutenant in the United States Army. A defective heating system caused the barracks to light on fire.
The lieutenant’s surviving spouse filed a lawsuit against the United States seeking damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The Supreme Court ruled that she could not sue the United States. Since that time, the ruling has been upheld in numerous cases.
The Supreme Court provided several explanations to justify the Feres Doctrine over the years. One explanation is that the Veterans’ Benefits Act provides benefits and compensation to service members and their families for injuries and deaths sustained while on active duty. Under the Veterans’ Benefits Act, the service member or family member does not need to prove wrongful conduct or negligence to obtain benefits.
The Supreme Court also pointed to the unique relationship between the government and service members as a reason for not allowing military personnel to sue the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Unfortunately, the Feres Doctrine continues to dictate whether service members can sue the United States for injuries while on active duty.
Some Supreme Court Justices disagree with the ruling. They point out that it is unfair to allow civilians to sue for the same causes of action that a military person might have if they were not on active duty.
Furthermore, retired military members may sue the government for injuries caused by government employees. The compensation for these claims are often much higher than the benefits under the Veterans’ Benefits Act.
An Exception for Medical Malpractice Claims
Congress has the power to change the Feres Doctrine but has chosen to leave the rule in place. However, in 2020, the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act resulted in an exception to the Feres Doctrine.
An active duty service member may receive compensation for medical malpractice. They must file an administrative claim with the Secretary of Defense. The active-duty service member cannot sue the United States directly for medical malpractice.
However, the exception provides a way for victims of medical malpractice to receive compensation even though they are on active duty.
However, there is a stipulation to the medical malpractice exception. The medical malpractice must have occurred at a covered military treatment facility. In addition, the medical provider must have been a Department of Defense health care provider.
The Feres Doctrine still bars a service member from filing a medical malpractice claim for malpractice at a civilian treatment facility operated by the Veterans’ Administration.
Consult With a Private Military Law Attorney
Active service members can seek legal advice from private attorneys who practice military law. The laws could change. Also, the facts of the case could provide a different path to recover compensation for injuries sustained while on active duty.