Army Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal went to medical one day in June 2017, complaining of breathing issues. The Army doctors at Fort Bragg told him it was a case of pneumonia. Just a few months later, still having trouble breathing, he went to a civilian doctor – who found what the Army called "pneumonia" was actually a tumor, which had doubled in size and spread to other parts of his body.
Stayskal's cancer was now stage four. He was terminal, and the father of two was given just a year or so to live. Stayskal's lawyers say the mistake was critical, and Stayskal's outcome would have been different if Army doctors had not missed what an "inexperienced resident would have seen."
The Special Forces operator is well aware of just how fragile life can be. In Iraq's Anbar Province, he was hit by a sniper in 2004. The bullet pierced one of his lungs and nearly killed him then. Stayskal, now 37 years old, kept the bullet to remember how close anyone can come to the edge. He would have done whatever it took to fight his cancer before it reached this stage.
Stayskal wants to sue the Army for medical malpractice – but he can't. A 1950 Supreme Court case, Feres v. United States, prohibits lawsuits from active-duty troops when they are injured or killed due to medical mistakes in military hospitals. He's been lobbying Congressional representatives and even President Trump ever since. His campaign is finally starting to pick up some steam.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal testifying in Congress.
The Feres Doctrine, as it has come to be called, is a Supreme Court decision based on three cases of negligence from the Army. Feres himself died in a barracks fire in New York State, and his estate wanted to sue the Army for not providing an adequate fire watch and for housing troops in a building known to have a defective furnace. Two other complaints accompanied Feres, including that of a plaintiff named Jefferson. Jefferson had undergone surgery in an Army hospital and later underwent surgery again – this time to remove a 30-inch towel marked "Medical Department U.S. Army" from his abdomen.
The Supreme Court found that even though the Army was negligent in the cases that made up Feres, it maintained that Active Duty troops were not protected by the Tort Claims Act because the incidents were related to their service and that families of the deceased are compensated under terms of their service without litigation.
The Supreme Court has already refused to hear a challenge to Feres in 2019, so it's up to Congress to change the law.
The new law is called the Sergeant First Class Richard Stayskal Military Medical Accountability Act of 2019, and it has bipartisan support in the House of Representatives, but the Pentagon is warning Congress against the Act. Military spouses, family members, and retirees are already able to sue the military, and did so to the tune of $59 million in fiscal year 2018. The Defense Department estimates that opening up the Pentagon to lawsuits from troops could cost as much as $440 million over the next decade.
"It's not going to cost that much money. If we get competent medical providers, I guess it wouldn't be a problem," said Rep. Jackie Speier, an Armed Services subcommittee chairwoman and lead sponsor of the bill.
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