You put a lot of faith in medical professionals like surgeons, doctors, and nurses to take care of your health. If a medical professional doesn’t live up to the high standards they are required to meet and hurts you, then you’re entitled to seek compensation for your injuries. Unfortunately, 9 million Armed Forces veterans had no such rights when it came to the Veterans Health Administration (VHA)—until now.
Any member of the United States Armed Forces treated at a VHA (or just VA) hospital had no recourse to sue their caretakers for their negligence. In June, however, the Defense Department finally published new guidelines permitting medical malpractice claims against the government by military personnel, including veterans and their families.
This is a huge step forward for veterans who’ve been further injured by the VHA medical system. However, it’s still not perfect. Keep reading to learn about why malpractice claims are important, why veterans can now make those claims, and what this means for you.
The Importance of Medical Malpractice Claims
In the US, medical malpractice claims are a critical element of the legal system. They’re not just intended to help injured patients recover after suffering from medical negligence. Malpractice claims also act as essential deterrents against neglect and careless medical care.
Unfortunately, some medical professionals face burnout or overwhelming patient loads. Others just don’t care about their patients’ health. Either way, it’s not uncommon for doctors and healthcare workers to lose sight of how their actions can affect patients’ entire lives. That’s when the risk for mistakes is highest.
The potential for a negligence claim helps counteract that lack of care. No one wants to face a lawsuit for ruining someone else’s life. Even if an individual healthcare provider is too burnt out or careless to think about potential consequences, their employer should still pay attention. The potential for hospital malpractice claims incentivizes medical organizations to monitor their staff and take steps to prevent mistakes.
That’s why the lack of medical malpractice liability to veterans from the VA was such a problem. It wasn’t just that veterans lacked a way to receive damages for their mistreatment. It also meant that VA doctors weren’t being held accountable for their actions. In crowded VA hospitals, that’s a recipe for overtired, reckless professionals making bad decisions regarding veterans’ health.
What Is Medical Malpractice?
Medical malpractice has a strict legal definition. It’s defined as any negligent act or omission by a healthcare professional that causes a patient injury. There’s nothing in this definition that limits it to civilians.
The phrase “negligent act or omission” is purposefully broad. It can include everything from diagnostic errors to surgical problems to medication issues. For example, failing to diagnose someone with a common health condition because the doctor forgot to run a regular test can be medical malpractice. So can accidentally prescribing too much or too little medication or making negligent mistakes during surgery or other treatments.
Why Weren’t Veterans Able to Sue the VA?
Like many laws and regulations connected to the US military, the rule preventing medical malpractice claims by service members against the government dates back decades. It stems from the Feres Doctrine, named after a landmark Supreme Court case.
In the 1950 case Feres v. the United States, the widow of Army Lt. Rudolph Feres sued the US government for the death of her husband in a barracks fire. The Supreme Court dismissed the case entirely, stating that the federal government wasn’t liable “for injuries to members of the armed forces arising from activities incident to military service.”
The Feres Doctrine was intended to cover injuries and deaths caused during active service. However, it’s been applied to a wide variety of situations, including sexual assault and medical malpractice. Essentially, any injury or death of a service member that’s even tangentially related to their service in the Armed Forces has historically been dismissed under the Feres Doctrine.
That’s why veterans weren’t able to sue for malpractice at VA health centers. They were eligible for treatment at these locations because of their service, so any injuries they suffered were equally caused by their service. This neatly prevented veterans from holding bad doctors accountable.
Veterans who face malpractice in civilian hospitals were able to sue like anyone else. Meanwhile, civilians could file malpractice claims against VA and civilian facilities alike. It was just military facilities, the only hospitals some veterans can access that were immune from veteran claims.
The Win for Veterans’ Rights to Sue
With the new Defense Department guidelines, veterans can finally file medical malpractice claims against the hospitals and doctors supposed to keep them healthy. With the new rules officially in place, veterans who’ve suffered harm from military hospitals can begin filing claims. Families of deceased veterans can file on their loved one’s behalf as well.
There’s still work to be done, of course. The new guidelines don’t permit veterans to file in civil courts. Instead, they need to bring their claim of damages before the military. That presents some unique challenges and may still prevent veterans from exercising the same rights as civilians. For example, there’s much less chance for a veteran to appeal the decision because of the lack of judicial review.
The new rules are still worlds better than the previous situation, though. With appropriate legal assistance, veterans and their families can finally hold the government accountable for negligent healthcare treatment.
Hold Bad Doctors Responsible for Your Injuries
No one deserves better medical treatment than the people who’ve put their bodies on the line for others. If you or your loved one is a veteran, you’re owed high-quality, careful healthcare. If you’ve been hurt instead, you now have a way to get help.
Reach out to an experienced medical malpractice lawyer and discuss your case with a free consultation. Even with the Defense Department’s strict guidelines, you can still benefit from working with an attorney to organize your case. Make sure you have the evidence and the argument necessary to receive the compensation you deserve. Work with a qualified legal team and start reclaiming your life today.