Whether you slipped and hurt yourself on some ice outside your workplace or have suffered an injury more directly related to your job duties, you may assume that worker's compensation insurance will cover the costs of your injuries -- and if not, that you'll simply be able to sue your employer to recover these expenses. However, the ability to file a lawsuit against your employer for on-the-job injuries or illnesses can be severely curtailed if you're an enlisted member of the military. Under a legal precedent called the Feres doctrine, you may be prevented from suing the federal government for military-related injuries even if you follow all the steps required under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Read on to learn more about the Feres doctrine and how you can protect yourself if you're prevented from suing the federal government for your injuries.
When does the Feres doctrine apply to injuries suffered by military personnel?
On its face, the Feres doctrine is designed to protect the federal government from potentially expensive lawsuits filed by (or on behalf of) every member of the military who has suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), physical injuries, or death due to military service. The cost and time involved in defending and settling each of these potential lawsuits would significantly impact the military's budget and could even prevent the institution of protective or preventive measures to help other servicemen and women.
However, this doctrine has been expanded to cover a variety of injuries that aren't always clearly related to military service and would ordinarily fall under worker's compensation laws or even medical malpractice laws. For example, in at least one case, a female military officer who gave birth in a military hospital and whose doctor's negligence caused her daughter to suffer severe brain damage was prevented from suing either the doctor or the hospital for malpractice. The rationale for this decision lies in the fact that the child's brain damage was due to a bad reaction to medication administered to the military officer, therefore stemming from her injuries -- and as an active-duty military officer receiving treatment at a military base, any injuries suffered would justifiably be barred by the Feres doctrine.
As a result, military members who are injured on military or government property -- even due to negligence -- could find themselves without much legal remedy to help pay the medical costs, lost wages, and other expenses incurred from this injury.
What should you do if you're injured during non-combat military service?
Veterans suffering from combat-related injuries are generally compensated through the Veteran's Administration (VA) disability program, which provides a monthly stipend for life to those affected by injuries received during combat that prevent them from returning to work.
However, injuries that occur on the job outside of combat can be trickier. While you should still qualify for VA disability if these non-combat injuries are sufficiently severe to prevent you from returning to service (or any gainful employment) in the future, short-term injuries may not render you eligible for VA disability pay unless they have a major impact on your ability to perform daily activities.
You'll want to consult an attorney experienced in military law to help you handle your potential case. Depending upon the circumstances of your injury, you may be able to sue one or more of the responsible parties in their individual capacity -- and if these responsible parties aren't government employees or contractors, this may be sufficient to remove your case from the grasp of the Feres doctrine. In other cases, a reckless and intentional action performed by one of the responsible parties could be enough to waive the government's immunity in your specific case. An attorney, such as those at Bayer Jerger & Underwood, can work with you to evaluate these options and help you determine the best way to proceed.