Medical Malpractice and Military Physicians

A medical malpractice claim can arise in virtually any medical context. When the physician involved is a member of the military, this can add additional layers of complexity, however.

The United States Supreme Court was recently asked to address this very issue. Steven Levin, a veteran, had a cataract in his right eye. He went to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Guam for treatment. An ophthalmologist with the U.S. Navy suggested a treatment that involves the removal of the cataract and the installation of an artificial lens into the eye. Levin originally signed a consent form for the surgery, but withdrew that consent immediately prior to the beginning of the surgery. The Navy doctor continued with the surgery nonetheless. He subsequently experienced corneal edema, which negatively affected his eyesight and the depth-of-field of his vision, and caused sensitivity to glare and discomfort.

Federal Tort Claims

To explain the lower courts' dismissal of Levin's case, some background is in order. Traditionally, the United States government was immune from being sued without its consent to do so. Some tentative steps were taken to change this as early as 1855, when the Court of Claims was introduced. Expansion of when citizens could sue the government continued, but there was still no easy way to do so in the case of torts.

This all changed in 1946 with passage of the Federal Tort Claims Act. The Act allowed individuals to sue the federal government for the negligent actions of its employees and agents, with some exceptions, in the same way as any private individual or company would be. One exception is in the case of certain deliberate torts, such as battery; the federal government remained immune from that kind of suit.

Plaintiffs had the option of suing the federal government or the individual employee, but could not recover from both. Later, Congress shielded certain specific classes of federal employee from being sued; one such law (called the Gonzalez Act) prevents suits against individual members of the armed forces who provide medical treatment from being sued individually. The Gonzalez Act does not prevent medical malpractice suits against the United States itself, however. It also contains an exception to the United States' immunity to suits for battery, where those actions happen in a medical setting.

Levin's Case

Levin sued his ophthalmologist, arguing that he had withdrawn his consent to be treated, which constitutes battery. As stated above, both the trial and appellate courts dismissed his claim, based on a different interpretation of the laws described above. Those courts concluded that the Gonzalez Act's purpose was to prevent the conclusion that liability against an individual must exist where there was no remedy against the U.S. government.

The Supreme Court disagreed, and concluded that interpretation of the law was "not difficult[.]" The Court adopted a literal interpretation of the law, which specifically says that immunity for intentional acts does not apply in a medical setting. The Court also noted that Congress itself said the law's purpose was to "nullify a provision of the Federal Tort Claims Act that would otherwise exclude any action for assault and battery." Therefore, the Court concluded, Levin's suit could proceed, and should not have been dismissed.

Dealing with a government defendant adds another layer of complexity to the already complicated matter of a medical malpractice suit. If you have been injured by a medical practitioner, government-employed or not, you should contact an experienced attorney as soon as possible.