Medical Malpractice Immunity Act Personal Injury Case: Levin v. U.S
Early in 2003, Stevin Levin was set to have surgery on his cataracts. The doctor performing the operation was Frank Bishop, a Lieutenant in the United States Navy. Prior to the eye surgery, Levin claimed that he withdrew the written consent that he had previously given. In fact, he claimed to have withdrawn it on two different occasions. However, the doctor still went ahead with the operation. Consequently, Levin suffered immediate and long-term injuries that both sides agreed would require follow-up care and significant medical expenses. Levin brought suit against the doctor for medical malpractice and battery. The United States government sought permission and was allowed to substitute itself for the defendant doctor.
Does the Medical Malpractice Immunity Act (Gonzales Act) remove sovereign immunity codified in the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) in the context of medical battery lawsuits?
At the onset, it was decided by the district court that Levin’s medical malpractice claimed was futile because there was a lack of genuine issue of material fact. Therefore, the case went ahead solely on the issue of medical battery. To that claim, the plaintiff first argued on the merits of the relevant statutes. The FTCA sets forth conditions when plaintiffs can sue the United States for damages; however, it excludes situations where the injury occurred because of an intentional tort, like medical battery. Levin countered this by bringing up section (e) of the Gonzales Act which, he claims, attempted to remove the sovereign immunity granted under FTCA for conduct related to wrongful medical care. Also, Levin argued that Congress’ intent was to remove sovereign immunity in the context of medical battery because if it had intended to maintain it, it would have clearly done so. Contrary to the rule that immunity rule waivers must be clear and explicit, Levin noted that the original waiver in FTCA was broad enough to allow for a subsequent removal in the Gonzales Act. To these two claims, the United States Government countered that section (e) of the Gonzales Act did not remove immunity in medical battery situations. Rather, it replied that the Gonzales Act merely protects military medical employees from lawsuits arising out of their scope of employment and that adding medical battery to a protected sphere of immunity would be too much. Further, the government noted that if it was the intent of the Congress to take away immunity in these situations it would have done so clearly and unequivocally.
The Court held unanimously that a reading of the FTCA and Gonzales Act permits plaintiffs to bring lawsuits against the United States government for medical battery. It utilized a plain text reading of both acts to gather that the Gonzales Act removed immunity for military personnel in medical battery situations that was given to them for intentional tort cases generally in the FTCA. Thus, it reversed the Ninth Circuit’s judgment and remanded to the lower court for further proceedings. Levin was therefore allowed to bring his case against the U.S. government.
The government does not have immunity for acts of medical battery committed by its employees in their sphere of employment.
The decision in this case was unanimous with all members of the Court siding with the majority (Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan).
This case was critical because if the Court found that the government was immune from suits for this kind of conduct, then a whole class of victims would have no recourse to seek compensation for their injuries. On the other hand, if the Court removed the government’s immunity for these acts, then it would subject the government to a whole new field of liability for acts of medical battery committed by its employees. Since it decided on the latter outcome, you can now bring suit against the government if one of its military medical personnel batters you while you are receiving treatment.