Military medical malpractice victims can't sue the government, an upcoming hearing is hoping to change that 

Abbie Bennett
April 25, 2019 - 8:34 pm
RichardStayskalandfamily

Courtesy of Megan Stayskal

Army Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal is a Green Beret stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He's a husband and father of two.

In 2004, Stayskal was a Marine in Ramadi, Iraq when he took a bullet to his left lung from a sniper rifle. Stayskal left the Corps and joined the Army shortly after, hoping to become a Special Forces medic. He would get his wish.

It was during Special Forces Dive School in Key West, Fla. in 2017 that Stayskal said he first noticed something wrong. Before the training, Stayskal underwent a physical exam and doctors at Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg failed to diagnose a mass found on his right lung -- a mass he was never told about. His condition only deteriorated.

A few months later, Stayskal had difficulty breathing and took an ambulance ride to an Army hospital for a second CT scan before being sent on his way, told his breathing issues were just a case of pneumonia. He said he felt like he was drowning, coupled with intense pain when he laid on his back, as unknowingly blood filled his lungs.

Shortly after his trips to the ER, Stayskal would take matters into his own hands and seek care from a private physician. He would later sit in a civilian doctor’s office and hear that he had non-small cell adenocarcinoma -- lung cancer.

“When I woke up, I saw my wife crying with the doctor explaining that I had cancer,” he said.

Feres Doctrine inching towards Supreme Court review

Today, Stayskal is terminally ill, fighting stage IV lung cancer, which has spread to his liver, spine, spleen, neck and other parts of his body. And no one is being held responsible for the mistake that could cost him his life. Stayskal and his family cannot file a lawsuit. That's because of the Feres Doctrine. 

Feres is based on a 1950 Supreme Court decision, Feres vs. United States, which ruled that the family of Army Lt. Rudolph Feres, who died in a barracks fire, couldn’t sue the federal government.

That ruling has since been used repeatedly in lower courts to block service members from suing the government for injury, or even death, incurred during military service, including injuries suffered during training accidents, sexual assault or those due to negligence or medical malpractice from military physicians.

Feres can only be overturned through an act of Congress or the Supreme Court reversing the precedent.

Victims of military medical malpractice including Stayskal will share their stories of suffering and loss with House lawmakers at a hearing on April 30 as Congress considers changing that rule. 

StayskalFamily
Courtesy of Megan Stayskal.

Tampa, Fla. attorney Natalie Khawam, of the Whistleblower Law Firm, wants more. She’s also seeking a $10 million lawsuit against the government for what happened to Stayskal.

“We want to tell Congress and the American people how gross the malpractice is at these hospitals,” Khawam said in an interview with Connecting Vets. “The tumor was so obvious that they noted it in the record, it was visible in the CT scan yet they didn’t tell him or treat it. That’s so dangerous. It’s playing with people’s lives.”

Khawam said she’s motivated to pursue dramatic change because no one is held accountable for mistakes and negligence that lead to loss such as Stayskal’s.

“It’s because they can,” she said. “No one’s held accountable. Nobody’s going to be punished. Our soldiers don’t have any kind of recourse.”

Green Beret in a fight for his life after 'gross negligence and malpractice' at Army hospital

Though Stayskal has limited time remaining because of his diagnosis, the Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient will make the trip from his family’s home in North Carolina to Washington to testify.

“He’s a warrior,” Khawam said. “He’s a hero. He got shot in the chest and that didn’t take him down. Instead of him enjoying his last days on earth, he’s shuffling back up and down to D.C. …  Walking up and down the halls of Congress. The guy’s in a lot of pain. He may try not to show his pain, but I can tell. He has been determined to make sure this does not happen to any of his brothers or sisters who sign up to fight for this country. That just speaks to his love for this country and our soldiers.”

Khawam said the goal Tuesday is not only to have lawmakers discuss Feres at the hearing but to introduce legislation to overturn it, adding that they already have legislative partners including Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., chairwoman of the subcommittee on military personnel, who plans to introduce a bill -- the Richard Stayskal Accountability Act.

The hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. April 30 and will be streamed online on the committee’s website.

A march in honor of Stayskal and other troops and their families to promote the bill is planned for 10:30 a.m. June 12 at Freedom Plaza, ending with a rally on the National Mall. 

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Follow Abbie Bennett, @AbbieRBennett.

Matt Saintsing contributed to this report.