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Legal Protections for Military Members in House Defense Bill

Members of the military aren't able to sue in cases of medical negligence because of a 1950 U.S. Supreme Court decision. (U.S. State Department/Flickr)
Members of the military aren't able to sue in cases of medical negligence because of a 1950 U.S. Supreme Court decision. (U.S. State Department/Flickr)
July 29, 2019

SEATTLE – Congress's defense spending package could provide military service members and their families more legal protections.

The House-passed version of the National Defense Authorization Act includes provisions that ban forced arbitration clauses so service members can take consumer and employment fraud to court.

It also would overturn the Feres Doctrine – a 1950 Supreme Court decision designed to protect the Defense Department from lawsuits in medical cases, such as split-second decisions by medics on the battlefield.

But Larry Shannon, government affairs director for the Washington State Association for Justice, says that decision has extended to any service member injury, illness or wrongful death.

"If this Feres Doctrine has become an exception that has swallowed the rule of accountability, there is no accountability for these health care providers both in the military and providing services to the military,” he states. “They get, basically, an immunity card from this Feres Doctrine."

Shannon credits U.S. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, for ensuring these measures were part of the final House bill.

However, the provisions weren't included in the Senate version so it's not yet clear if they will be part of the final package.

Critics of these measures say the Defense department will be subject to unending lawsuits.

Shannon also praises the forced arbitration prohibition provisions, which give service members the ability to sue in cases involving fraudulent debt collection or home loans, and against employers, such as military contractors. He notes that it's hard enough for the public to enforce their rights under forced arbitration agreements. It's nearly impossible for service members.

"The net effect is just stripping your rights away from you,” he maintains. “You have no redress. It means that they have a license to steal from the members of the military with virtually no accountability and no redress on these consumer transactions and from some of these contractors in the area of employment."

The House and Senate are expected to begin negotiations on the 2020 spending package in August. The current spending bill expires at the end of September.

Disclosure: Washington State Association for Justice contributes to our fund for reporting on Consumer Issues. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA