Victims of Military Medical Malpractice to Testify Before Congress

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Victims of malpractice by military doctors will testify Tuesday in Washington, D.C., on the devastating impact of medical errors and the legal barriers they faced in suing the federal government for the mistakes.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal, a Green Beret diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer, will appear before the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee with Alexis Witt, the widow of an airman who suffered brain damage in 2003 following an appendectomy.

The two plan to discuss the fairness of a law that prevents U.S. service members from suing in cases of medical malpractice.

Civilian doctors diagnosed Stayskal in mid-2017 with Stage IV lung cancer, six months after Army doctors failed to identify a suspicious growth in his lungs. When Witt's husband, Air Force Staff Sgt. Dean Patrick Witt, stopped breathing after his surgery in 2003, a series of mistakes by the staff deprived him of oxygen for more than seven minutes, causing irreversible brain damage. He died three months later.

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Stayskal has been visiting with members of Congress to press for a change in the law that bars military personnel from suing the U.S. government, a ruling on the Federal Tort Claims Act commonly known as the Feres doctrine. Witt's lawsuit seeking an exception to Feres in military medical malpractice went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011, but the justices refused to hear the case.

The two argue that the law fails to hold military physicians accountable for errors. Opponents of the doctrine also say that the compensation package awarded to the families of service members injured by military physicians is not enough.

Stayskal's attorney, Natalie Khawam of the Whistleblower Law Firm in Tampa, said Feres was meant to ensure that leaders and personnel practicing medicine on the battlefield weren't sued for their decisions. It was not designed, she argued, to shield civilian doctors practicing in modern military medical facilities.

"This is not what the justices were thinking. When they wrote this law, if a doctor messed up, they were officers who could go before a military tribunal," Khawam told Military.com in March. "The court did not foresee contract doctors in military hospitals."

Earlier this year, Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, pledged to make the ruling one of her top legislative priorities. The hearing exclusively on the Feres doctrine is the first in a decade.

Khawam said several other lawmakers are planning to introduce legislation that would allow military personnel to sue in egregious cases of malpractice.

As Congress weighs a possible change to the law that underlies the Feres ruling, a case challenging Feres remains alive in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Former Coast Guard officer Walter Daniel lost his wife, Navy Lt. Moani Daniel, a labor and delivery nurse, in 2014 when she died during childbirth at Naval Hospital Bremerton, Washington. She bled to death following her own delivery. The justices have reviewed the case across several weeks; they have not yet announced whether they will hear it.

Also scheduled to testify Tuesday are Rebecca Lipe, a former Air Force captain and judge advocate; Dwight Sterling, CEO for the Center for Law and Military Policy; and Paul Figley, professor of legal rhetoric at American University's Washington College of Law.

The event is scheduled at 2 p.m. It can be viewed on the committee's website.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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