Supreme Court Sides with Plaintiff in Armed Forces Medical Malpractice Lawsuit

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court reached a decision potentially relevant in any lawsuit dealing with medical malpractice committed by doctors within the Armed Forces.

The case, Levin v. US, 133 S. Ct. 1224 (2013), dealt with a veteran who suffered injuries as a result of cataract surgery performed at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Guam. Just prior to the surgery, the plaintiff revoked his consent to the surgery, due to his concerns with equipment in the operating room. The surgery went ahead anyway, which resulted in his injury. He thus filed suit under the FTCA; however, as an intentional act, rather than a negligent one, the ninth circuit ruled that this case did not fall within the FTCA’s parameters, leading to this appeal to the Supreme Court.

The court engaged in an extensive discussion regarding Congress’s history of enacting agency-specific causes of action, and then reverting back to a general schema for the FTCA. Regarding medical claims, Congress passed the Medical Malpractice Immunity Act in 1976, which is commonly known as the Gonzalez Act. That Act, which is controlling in this case, makes claims against the United States under the FTCA the “exclusive” remedy for injuries resulting from malpractice committed by medical personnel of the armed forces and other specified agencies, and was thus the controlling statute for this lawsuit.

The initial lawsuit had two major arguments. One was that the doctor was negligent in conducting the surgery, and the second was that he committed a battery (an intentional action) by conducting the surgery, even though the plaintiff had reportedly withdrawn his consent orally on two separate occasions. Since the doctor was acting in his official capacity as a governmental employee, pursuant to the relevant statutes, the Government substituted as the sole defendant. The district court granted the Government’s motion for summary judgment after the plaintiff failed to produce expert testimony to support his negligence claims.

Next, regarding the battery claim, the Government attempted to argue that the FTCA’s intentional tort exception disallows for any lawsuits against the United States for battery. The plaintiff argued that the Gonzalez Act renders the intentional tort exception inapplicable in alleging a medical battery by an armed forces physician. The District Court found the Government’s interpretation more compelling, and granted its motion to dismiss.

The central question before the court, then, was whether the controlling provision of the Gonzalez Act authorizes battery claims against the United States when military doctors operate without the patient’s consent.

After analyzing the arguments of both sides, it found that the plaintiff’s argument that the Gonzalez Act did allow for battery claims was likely to be in accordance with the original intent of the law, finding that the Gonzalez Act is not affected by the FTCA’s intentional tort exception, and allowing for plaintiff’s suit against the United States alleging medical battery by a Navy doctor acting within the scope of his employment.

It thus reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals, and remanded the case to be determined in accordance with this decision.

If you or someone you love has been injured because of negligence or error on the part of a physician or other health care provider, it is important that you speak with a medical malpractice lawyer who has the knowledge and experience to handle medical malpractice cases. The attorneys at Lebowitz and Mzhen have years of experience in handling medical malpractice cases, and we have successfully obtained compensation for our clients who have been injured by medical error or negligence.

More Blog Posts:

Kroger Green Bean Slip & Fall Case Demonstrates Considerations for whether Personal Injury Cases Remain in Federal or State Court, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, published December 10, 2013
Maryland High Court Sides Against Parents, Upholds Liability Waiver, in Case involving 5 Year Old Seriously Injured in Store’s Play Area, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, published December 3, 2013

Contact Information