Sunday, April 20, 2008

Military medical malpractice: Seeking recourse

Outrage over a recent spate of incidents spurs fresh efforts to overturn the Feres doctrine, a 1950 Supreme Court decision denying active-duty service members the right to sue over medical errors

Go to Los Angeles Times original
Minutes after routine surgery for acute appendicitis in October 2003, Staff Sgt. Dean Witt, 25, was being moved to a recovery room at a Northern California military hospital when he gasped and stopped breathing.

A student nurse assisting an understaffed anesthesia team tried to resuscitate Witt and failed. Inexplicably, Witt's gurney was wheeled into a pediatric area. Lifesaving devices sized for children, not a 175-pound adult, proved useless, according to an internal report on the incident.
Medical personnel at David Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base screamed at each other. A double dose of a powerful stimulant was mistakenly administered. When a breathing tube was finally inserted, it was misdirected, uselessly pumping air into the patient's stomach. Errors compounded errors and delays multiplied.

By the time a breathing tube finally was inserted correctly, Witt had devastating brain damage. Three months later, he was removed from life support and died. Witt, who grew up in Oroville, Calif., left behind a wife and two children, including a 4-month-old son.

"This medical incident was due to an avoidable error," concluded an unpublished internal report, a copy of which was reviewed by The Times.

Despite questionable medical care criticized in the report, the bereaved family could not sue for malpractice because Witt was an active-duty airman. Under limits stemming from a Supreme Court ruling nearly 60 years old, military hospitals and their staffs are immune from malpractice claims -- even for the most egregious lapses -- if the victim is an enlisted member on active duty.


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