US Supreme Court allows lawsuit against Navy doctor for medical battery

It may seem like an overwhelming proposition to sue the United States government for injury caused by one of its employees. Traditionally, the doctrine of sovereign immunity says that governmental bodies are immune from being privately sued, but the Federal Tort Claims Act, known as the FTCA, waives that immunity by allowing personal injury lawsuits against the federal government in certain situations.

Levin v. United States

In March 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Levin v. United States clarified one type of suit that is allowed against the federal government for the tort of medical battery by a government doctor.

Steven Levin is a military veteran who went to a U.S. naval hospital for cataract surgery. He claims that before the procedure he was concerned about the surgical equipment in the room and for that reason twice verbally withdrew his consent to the cataract operation. He alleges further that the Navy ophthalmologist went ahead with the procedure despite Levin having withdrawn consent and that surgical mistakes caused ongoing corneal edema in the right eye, negatively affecting vision, and causing pain and glare.

Levin sued the government and the doctor for negligence and battery, which is when a person intentionally touches another person's body with force and hostility. The plaintiff asserted that the unconsented-to surgery was a battery and was also negligently performed.

The complexity of the FTCA

The FTCA allows civil personal injury lawsuits against the federal government for injury caused by the wrongful conduct of its employees acting in the scope of their employment. However, the FTCA does not allow suits for injuries from certain enumerated intentional torts, including battery.

The FTCA is almost always the only legal remedy for these kinds of injuries and the government, not the employee who allegedly caused the harm, is the entity that is subject to being sued. FTCA lawsuits can only award money damages.

FTCA claims must be first brought in front of the federal agency involved and if the matter is not settled to the plaintiff's satisfaction there, he or she may ask for review in U.S. District Court and then appealed up through the federal court system.

After the lower courts released the doctor from Levin's suit, disallowed the negligence claim for lack of expert testimony and said that the battery claim was not allowed under the FTCA, plaintiff Levin ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court for interpretation of another federal law that interacts with the FTCA.

The Gonzalez Act

Levin and the government argued to the Supreme Court about whether the Gonzalez Act creates an exception to the FTCA's bar against suits for federal-employee battery in the case of medical personnel.

Basically, Levin argued that the Gonzalez Act carves out a narrow exception allowing lawsuits for medical batteries by federal employees. He reasoned further that this exception allowed him to sue the government for the naval doctor's battery committed within the scope of his federal employment.

The Supreme Court agreed with Levin's interpretation, holding that he would be allowed to return to the lower court and have his battery claim against the federal government heard.

Get legal advice for government tort actions

The Levin case illustrates how complex FTCA claims against the government can be. Seek the representation of a knowledgeable personal injury attorney with experience in governmental torts if you or a loved one is harmed by a federal government employee.

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