In the most recent challenge to the Feres Doctrine, a former airman who lost his legs due to a botched gallbladder surgery is suing the U.S. government, the Air Force and the David Grant Medical Center for medical malpractice.
The Feres Doctrine, based on a 1950 case, Feres v. United States, states that the federal government cannot be held liable for injuries arising from activities incident to military service. Basically, the doctrine is an extension of the common law concept of sovereign immunity. Numerous challenges have tried to overturn the Feres precedent, but the Supreme Court has yet to overrule the verdict.
A 23-year-old airman who went in for a routine laparoscopic cholecystectomy just prior to being deployed overseas is bringing suit. He was treated at a local air force base medical center. During surgery, one of the operating physicians lacerated the airman’s aorta, which caused a massive bleed in the retroperitoneal area.
The surgical team did not initially realize that the patient’s aorta had been lacerated. Later in the operation as the airman’s blood pressure dropped precipitously, the operating team opened up the airman’s abdomen to ascertain if there was an internal bleed. At that point, the doctors’ tried to repair the aortic tear with sutures, but by then more than two-thirds of the airman’s blood supply was gone.
After surgery, the airman was remanded to the intensive care unit. After several hours, the ischemia in both his legs was apparent—they were cold, pale, and mottled. The airman was then transferred to the University of California-Davis Medical Center. A vascular surgeon at the hospital determined that the aorta supplying blood to his legs had been blocked for too long and that necrosis had set in. The airman’s legs were subsequently amputated.
The airman and his wife are suing for at least $34.3 million in damages for pain, loss-of-earning capacity, physical impairment, mental anguish and disfigurement. The suit also seeks an additional $20.5 million for the airman’s wife for loss of consortium and capacity to enjoy life.