Court Rules Federal Government Not Immune From Lawsuits Involving Negligence in Soldier Mental Health Treatment

On November 2, in the Western District of Washington, Honorable District Judge Barbara J. Rothstein ruled that the U.S. government retained no immunity from medical negligence suits, where the alleged negligent actions of government employees involved judgments made outside of the discretion granted by explicit or implied government-designated policy options. 

The underlying litigation involved a civilian, the plaintiff Kevin D. Anthony, being shot multiple times by U.S. Army Ranger Specialist Jesse M. Suhanec, while the plaintiff simply sat in his truck. The plaintiff subsequently suffered permanent disability and sued the federal government for damages as a result of the negligence of the Army personnel observing, diagnosing, overseeing, and treating Suhanec’s mental health ailments. Specifically, the plaintiff asserted that the ailments (for which specifics were sealed by the court to protect the privacy of Suhanec) at issue were known to the relevant personnel, and should have disqualified Suhanec from further military service. Instead, the plaintiff claimed that the defendant ignored the warning signs, resulting in Suhanec obtaining a “9mm handgun and ammunition from the Unit Armory…using his army privileges,” trying to steal the plaintiff’s truck, and, while attempting said theft, shooting the truck nine times. 

The district judge explained that following the shooting, Suhanec pled guilty to robbery, assault, burglary, and attempted vehicle theft, receiving six years confinement. Three years later, Anthony sued the government for medical negligence under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), claiming that the evidence indisputably proved that the defendant should never have recruited Suhanec for military service, allowed Suhanec to continue military service, or approved Suhanec for access to guns or ammunition from within the defendant’s armory. 

The US government proffered that the FTCA gives the defendant blanket immunity against negligence suits based on actions taken by a government employee during the ordinary course of their employment. The district court held that while such an assertion was mostly true, Congress created exceptions to the aforementioned immunity for discretionary activity by an employee not grounded in policies “expressed or implied by statute, regulation, or agency guidelines.” To put it more simply, explained Judge Rothstein, is to ask whether or not the government employee made a negligent choice outside of the permissive discretion granted by government guidance or policy. If outside the range of discretion granted by the defendant, then the government employee’s action can be challenged in court on grounds of negligence. 

As such, the court determined that the plaintiff’s cause of action for negligence rooted in the defendant being negligent by allowing Suhanec to leave with a gun and ammunition from the defendant’s armory, despite the defendant knowing of Suhanec’s mental ailments, could not proceed. The government employee’s decision to allow the gun and ammunition to leave (or not leave) with Suhanec was the type of delimited discretion covered by FTCA immunity as it furthered the defendant’s recognized policy of “balancing the needs of the armed forces, and its personnel, in accessing weapons with the safety of those weapons.” 

In direct contrast, the court allowed the portion of the plaintiff’s negligence suit to survive dismissal that claimed that the defendant’s mental health professionals committed medical negligence as said professionals “should have diagnosed Suhanec with an immediately disqualifying condition, treated him differently, or better monitored him once they chose a course of treatment.” The opinion elaborated that mental health diagnoses and treatment plans per se receive no FTCA immunity as “for claims of medical negligence, the Ninth Circuit has directed that ‘ordinary occupational or professional judgments are not protected by the discretionary-function exception.’” 

The court concluded by ruling that the claims do not survive the defendant’s additional motion for summary judgment due to lack of evidence, despite holding that parts of the plaintiff’s medical negligence claim survived a motion to dismiss. A proper claim of medical negligence, explained Judge Rothstein, required the plaintiff “to provide the medical expert testimony necessary to establish the standard of care from which the mental health professionals allegedly departed…. Without expert medical testimony, (the) (p)laintiff cannot maintain his claim for medical negligence on the part of Suhanec’s treatment providers.”