Earlier this year, we discussed legislation that sought to repeal standing precedent which prohibits military members from filing certain types of medical malpractice claims. Currently, active-duty military members are prohibited from bringing medical malpractice lawsuits against the government, no matter how devastating that medical negligence may be.
Bringing this issue into sharp focus is the case of U.S. Army Special Forces Green Beret Sfc. Richard Stayskal. Sfc. Stayskal was awarded a Purple Heart after he was shot in the chest in Iraq in 2004. He continued his service for our country, and, in 2017, visited Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg for chest issues. Doctors there misdiagnosed his lung cancer not once, but twice. Sfc. Stayskal was told he had pneumonia, despite the fact that records show documented internal concerns which included a “possible mediastinal mass” and an “abnormality” that “needed” attention.
Sfc. Stayskal visited a civilian doctor, who accurately diagnosed his lung cancer. By the time this happened, the cancer had metastasized. He now faces Stage IV terminal lung cancer. An in-depth investigation was conducted by a local news outlet into Sfc. Stayskal's condition and his multiple misdiagnoses. His case has been the prime example of why depriving our service men and women of the ability to file medical malpractice claims can be supremely unfair. Sfc. Stayskal has met with President Trump, Vice President Pence, and dozens of lawmakers in an effort to overturn the Feres Doctrine, and there is bipartisan support for a bill to hold bad military doctors accountable for their actions. The Department of Defense opposes the bill, arguing it would disrupt established hierarchy while maintaining that the current compensation system is sufficient.
Earlier this month, the bill had stalled, while Sfc.'s condition continued to deteriorate. The stall was due to opposition from Senator Lindsey Graham, chair of the Judiciary Committee. Graham expressed concern that the bill would open the government up to lawsuits unrelated to malpractice.
However, it was announced on Monday that lawmakers have reached an agreement to include a repeal of the medical malpractice portion of the Feres Doctrine in the defense spending bill or National Defense Authorization Act. Lawmakers are reportedly still debating how long a service member would have to submit a claim. The bill would then require a full conference report, after which it can proceed to the floors for a vote. The final step would be White House approval. If approved, this bill could allow Sfc. Stayskal and/or his family members to bring a claim on his behalf.
Sfc. Stayskal and other advocates view this legislation as long overdue. In reports covering his situation, it was noted that if Sfc. Stayskal had been a veteran, civilian, or even a prisoner at the time of his misdiagnoses, he would be able to bring a medical malpractice claim. Sfc. Stayskal's attorney told a local news reporter: “ISIS couldn't kill him but our own healthcare system is.”