On July 17, Army Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal briefly met with President Donald Trump at a rally in Greenville, North Carolina to discuss the eponymous legislation that would finally allow victims of military medical malpractice to sue the U.S. government.
A Green Beret with terminal lung cancer, Stayskal has spent the last year fighting to change the Feres Doctrine, a 1950 Supreme Court precedent that bars service members like him from suing the government for negligence or wrongdoing.
The Sergeant First Class Richard Stayskal Military Medical Accountability Act of 2019 passed the House on July 12 as part of the House version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. The legislation now faces the upcoming conference committee on the NDAA before it has a chance of landing on the president's desk.
The brief talk with the president, which was reported by Fox News' Matthew Grant and followed by a chat with Vice President Mike Pence, is the most recent victory for Stayskal in his uphill battle to see the 69-year-old legal rule changed.
"It has been an honor to meet the President, but the purpose of our introduction was for me to explain the importance of getting our bill passed so we can correct this injustice that afflicts our soldiers when they are victims of malpractice," Stayskal told Task & Purpose via email.
Stayskal and his attorney, Natalie Khawam with the Tampa, Florida-based Whistleblower Law Firm, said they hope they can count on the president and vice president to rally support for the legislation as it moves to conference.
"I'm honored to represent Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal and committed to our men & women serving in the military," Khawam told Task & Purpose. "Let's get the Sergeant First Class Richard Stayskal Military Medical Accountability Act of 2019 passed in the NDAA conference — as we can't afford to lose another American hero like Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal to malpractice."
Stayskal first became aware something was wrong with his health in March 2017 while at Special Forces Dive School in Key West, Florida. For the first time in his life, the combat veteran — who'd survived a gunshot wound to the chest in Ramadi, Iraq in 2004 — had trouble keeping up with his training. Easily fatigued and unable to catch his breath, Stayskal was sent home to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
From there, his health worsened. Over the next several months he began to wheeze and had trouble breathing when lying on his back. Other times his vision would go blurry, and his body numb. Sometimes he would cough up blood. Stayskal visited military doctors multiple times, including two emergency room visits — one to Womack Army Medical Center on Fort Bragg, and another out in town — but answers proved elusive. The best guesses Army doctors could offer were walking pneumonia and asthma.
It wasn't until June 2017 when he was given permission to see a civilian specialist out in town, that he found the cause of his declining health: He had lung cancer. What's more, it could have been caught months earlier.
A CT-scan taken of his chest five months earlier in January at Fort Bragg's Womack Army Medical Center showed a mass on his lung. Stayskal and his attorneys with Whistleblower Law Firm allege that care providers failed to properly identify the mass for what it was, and that if the cancer had been caught back in January, something could have been done, Task & Purpose previously reported. The cancer has since metastasized and is terminal.
Despite the alleged mistakes, Stayskal is barred from suing the military for medical malpractice due to the Feres Doctrine.
On April 30, Richard Stayskal joined other military medical malpractice victims in Washington to speak before a House Armed Services subcommittee on the Feres Doctrine, Task & Purpose reported that day.
As a Supreme Court precedent, the Feres Doctrine can only be changed two ways: Either the nation's highest court could overturn the initial ruling; or Congress could pass legislation to amend the Federal Tort Claims Act — a law which governs how citizens can sue the government. The same day as the hearing, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) introduced the Sergeant First Class Richard Stayskal Military Medical Accountability Act of 2019.
If passed, the bipartisan bill would create an exemption to the Federal Tort Claims Act and allow service members and their families to bring medical malpractice lawsuits against the government in specific cases. However, the bill would only cover cases that are still pending on, or occur after the bill's passage, as Task & Purpose previously reported.
Because Stayskal already filed his malpractice lawsuit in federal court, his case would be covered if the bill passed, and he and his family would be able to sue the government for medical malpractice.
Originally designed to protect the military from having decisions made in combat second-guessed in civilian court, the Feres Doctrine has been broadly applied to everything from training incidents, to sexual assault, to workplace violence, and medical malpractice.
One of the major critiques of the doctrine is that it creates a double standard: One set of rules for civilians, and another for those in uniform. For example: If a service member and a military dependent saw the same military doctor at the same base hospital, for the same exact ailment, and identical mistakes were made in both cases, the civilian patient would be able to sue for medical malpractice; the service member would not, as Task & Purpose previously reported.
If the Sergeant First Class Richard Stayskal Military Medical Accountability Act of 2019 were to pass, then that would change.
"The Feres Doctrine has been wrongly applied to malpractice cases that are not combat related and we are focused on fixing this injustice through the passage of our bill," Stayskal told Task & Purpose. "We hope that bringing awareness of this injustice to the president, the vice president and our members of Congress will help with getting their support of getting our bill passed in the NDAA conference, so that our men and women in the military proudly serving our country will have the protections and rights they rightfully deserve."