Why Veterans Cannot Sue the Government

By Fall 2017 M-VETS Student-Advisor Emma Devaney

Signing up for military service requires making some personal sacrifices. Sacrifices that result in injury, disability or disease have been addressed by our government since the country’s founding.  Since 1930 the Veterans Administration (“VA”) has been tasked with the responsibility of providing disability compensation and medical services to approved Veterans.  It is widely agreed that the country has a responsibility to assist disabled Veterans injured in service to their country.  However, the importance of VA compensation can be further appreciated when reminded that Veterans are not able to “sue” the United States in a traditional sense.  Most often, their only road to recovery for an injury or disability is through the VA.  This makes it extraordinarily important to have a VA compensation structure that evolves with the needs of our Veterans, and our medical understanding.

Tort suits against the government are traditionally barred by sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity is a concept derived through common law from England, based on the concept that the King cannot be sued because the King can do no wrong.[1]  However, the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”) waives this immunity under certain circumstances, stating that the “United States shall be liable, respecting…tort claims, in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances.”[2]

Some Veterans sought to recover against the government in civil suits, arguing that the FTCA permitted a cause of action. However, the Supreme Court of the United States precluded a claim under the FTCA for negligence in a 1950 decision.[3]  In Feres v. United States, the United States Supreme Court held that FTCA did not extend to military personnel who sustained injury incident to service.[4] Feres consolidated three cases, involving negligence actions brought by active duty personnel, which caused death or injury by other military personnel.[5]  The Court reasoned that the relationship between the government and a member of the military had no equivalent in the private sector, where recovery would be allowed.[6]  The opinion discussed how the FTCA should be interpreted to be read in harmony with the statutory scheme.[7]  Among other rationale, the Court reasoned that the military was “distinctly federal” and the FTCA did not intend to allow local law to dictate recovery in applicable cases.[8]  In Addition, federal statutes already provided for remedies through a comprehensive statutory regime, and therefore, the legislature did not intend to permit additional recover through the FTCA to military personnel.[9]

In Lombard v. United States, the D.C. Circuit Court applied the Feres Doctrine and denied an Army Veteran recovery for injuries sustained by him and his family while he worked on the Manhattan Project.[10]  The soldier alleged that his exposure to the radiation, and the failure of the government to warn him about the dangers, resulted in physical and genetic damage.[11]  This damage also affected his children, who were born after his exposure.[12]  The court dismissed all claims due to lack of jurisdiction.[13]  The court reasoned that it was bound by Feres even in regard to the Lombard children’s claims.[14]  The contemporary statutory scheme did not provide for the children to recover, leaving them without remedy.[15]  Despite this the court denied the children’s claims along with Lombard’s and called for additional legislative action in the opinion.  The courts have thereby established that recovery by military servicemembers for injury caused by exposure to radiation, is for the legislature to decide and not an issue for the courts to address.

The legislature has responded with a comprehensive statutory scheme, outlining the requirements a Veteran must meet before obtaining VA compensation. This requires constant legislative attention as the needs of our Veterans and the injuries they suffer continues to evolve.

Exposures to radiation in the 1950s and 60s and exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam spurred slow but certain evolution in the VA approach to evaluating claims. Although many of these Veterans were denied compensation, their plight eventually spurred change in VA compensation to account for injuries related to exposure.  For example, the legislature created a list of “presumptive diseases” which make it easier for an effected Veteran to receive VA compensation by making his or her burden of proof easier.  Room for evolution in scientific and medical understanding was eventually built into the statutory structure by providing for medical research and additions to the list of presumptive diseases without further Congressional action required.

Legislative action is only achieved through political pressure applied by individual citizens and Veteran interest groups. Although far from perfect, political pressure has led to changes which enable VA policy to react more quickly to evolving medical understandings.  Further legislative attention will only lead to better service for our injured Veterans.

[1] Feres v. United States, 340 U.S. 135, 139 (1950).

[2] 28 U.S.C. § 2674

[3] Feres v. United States, 340 U.S. 135 (1950).

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at 136.

[6] Id. at 143-144.

[7] Id. at 139.

[8] Id. at 142-144.

[9] Id. at 139.

[10] Lombard v. United States, 690 F.2d 215 (D.C. Cir. 1982).

[11] Id. at 216-217.

[12] Id. at 217.

[13] Id. 227.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.