When an employee or other person acting on behalf of the United States commits medical malpractice, the United States is responsible to handle and pay the medical malpractice claim if appropriate. The responsibility of the United States under such circumstances is set forth in a federal law called the Federal Tort Claims Act.
Many physicians practicing in clinics and hospitals owned, operated, or funded by the United States government are federal employees for purposes of medical malpractice claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act. It is not always obvious if a negligent medical care provider was a federal employee or not. This is important because federal employee physicians cannot be sued in state courts for medical malpractice.
Under the Federal Tort Claims Act, the United States is liable in damages to an injured party for injuries arising from a negligent act or omission of its employees, if a private person would be liable under the law of the place where the act or omission occurred. (28 U.S.C. Section 1346(b)). Whether the United States is liable for the negligence of its employees is a question of state law. The Plaintiff (Claimant) in a medical malpractice claim filed against the United States for medical malpractice negligence has the burden of proving, by the greater weight of evidence, (1) that the United States owed the Plaintiff a duty or obligation, recognized by law, requiring the United States to conform to a certain standard of conduct, for the protection of others against unreasonable risks of harm, (2) a breach of that duty by the United States, or failure to conform to the required standard, (3) the breach of duty by the United States is the proximate cause of Plaintiff’s injuries; and (4) as a result of Plaintiff’s injuries, he/she has suffered actual loss or damages.
The Federal Tort Claims Act contains many requirements regarding how and when claims under the Act can be made, including stringent notice requirements to the appropriate federal government authorities. If the proper, timely, and adequate notice is not given under the Federal Tort Claims Act, then the claim will probably be dismissed for failure to follow the federal requirements. It is important to obtain timely legal advice from medical malpractice attorneys familiar with the federal civil courts and who handle Federal Tort Claims Act claims to make sure that an otherwise valid medical malpractice claim is not dismissed for failure to follow the federal requirements.
In a sad case out of the U.S. Territory of Guam, the wife of an active duty service member sought treatment at a federal health care clinic in Guam for serious neurologic symptoms that she was experiencing. She was seen at the clinic on several different occasions over the period of a few weeks, each time complaining of her spreading and worsening medical condition, during which she was treated by a nurse practitioner and a physician’s assistant, both of whom she thought were medical doctors, but was never seen by a physician and their supervising physician never reviewed the medical records or discussed her medical care with them. She was ultimately referred to a federal naval hospital but on a routine basis instead of an emergency or urgent basis. Once seen by a physician at the naval hospital, he immediately diagnosed a serious neurologic condition and arranged for her to be immediately airlifted to a medical facility in Hawaii. In Hawaii, she underwent immediate emergency surgery but the serious and permanent damage had already happened as a result of the medical errors and medical malpractice that had been committed at the clinic in Guam.
As a result of the various medical malpractice errors in Guam, the wife suffered irreversible damage to her sacral nerve roots, causing permanent bowel incontinence, numb buttocks, a numb vagina, a neurogenic bladder, neuropathic pain for which she needs to take several medications, and paresthesia down the back of her legs and feet. She cannot sleep through the night and must use sleep medication, she is unable to sit like a normal person, she is unable to walk for an extended period without pain, and she has sexual dysfunction (her sexual relations with her husband went from 2 to 4 times per week to twice per year). While she and her husband had been socially very active before the malpractice, she now confines herself to home where she is close to her bathroom.
The Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court of Guam found that the nurse practitioner and the physician’s assistant, both of whom were federal employees, committed various acts of medical malpractice and that the medical malpractice was the cause of the wife’s catastrophic injuries. As a result, the Chief Judge awarded substantial monetary damages against the United States to compensate for past and future damages related to the medical malpractice.
Source: District Court of Guam, Territory of Guam, Civil Case No.: 06-00008.
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