Dean Witt’s widow, Alexis, holds their son, Noah, 4, with daughter Hannah, 5. She is determined to challenge the Feres doctrine — a 1950 Supreme Court ruling that prevents the bereaved family from suing for malpractice — in court. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

Minutes after routine surgery for acute appendicitis in October 2003, Staff Sgt. Dean Witt, 25, was being moved to a recovery room at a Northern California military hospital when he gasped and stopped breathing.
Military medical malpractice: An article in Sunday's Section A about military medical personnel being immune from malpractice lawsuits said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) had served as a fighter pilot. He was an Army infantry officer in Vietnam. —

A student nurse assisting an understaffed anesthesia team tried to resuscitate Witt and failed. Inexplicably, Witt's gurney was wheeled into a pediatric area. Lifesaving devices sized for children, not a 175-pound adult, proved useless, according to an internal report on the incident.

Medical personnel at David Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base screamed at each other. A double dose of a powerful stimulant was mistakenly administered. When a breathing tube was finally inserted, it was misdirected, uselessly pumping air into the patient's stomach. Errors compounded errors and delays multiplied.

By the time a breathing tube finally was inserted correctly, Witt had devastating brain damage. Three months later, he was removed from life support and died. Witt, who grew up in Oroville, Calif., left behind a wife and two children, including a 4-month-old son.

"This medical incident was due to an avoidable error," concluded an unpublished internal report, a copy of which was reviewed by The Times.

Despite questionable medical care criticized in the report, the bereaved family could not sue for malpractice because Witt was an active-duty airman. Under limits stemming from a Supreme Court ruling nearly 60 years old, military hospitals and their staffs are immune from malpractice claims -- even for the most egregious lapses -- if the victim is an enlisted member on active duty.

A series of court rulings since 1950 have upheld the original decision, known as Feres vs. United States, denying members of the military the right to sue for damages over medical errors or even deliberate wrongs.

Barbara Cragnotti of Medford, Ore., learned of the Feres case after her son Joseph suffered lung and neurological injuries from undiagnosed pneumonia while under a military doctor's care. Joseph Cragnotti was in the Navy and had nearly completed training for submarine duty when he was stricken.

Military medical personnel failed to provide antibiotics, and her son ended up having multiple surgeries. He lost part of a lung. His mother said his condition deteriorated further after doctors at the naval hospital in Bremerton, Wash., took the sailor off a needed drug, causing seizures and permanent neurological damage.

Joseph Cragnotti, now 28, has left the military but still needs treatment for his medical conditions.

His mother joined VERPA -- Veterans Equal Rights Protection Advocacy -- a nonprofit group determined "to expose and remedy" what it calls "the un-American Feres doctrine."

Barbara Cragnotti, now head of the organization, foresees more trouble as wounded troops from Iraq and Afghanistan strain a taxed military health system. "Congress is not going to act until the public forces them to," she said. The military medical establishment is "hiding behind the Feres doctrine."

Christine Lemp, whose husband, James, 35, died after receiving questionable medical care at Missouri's Ft. Leonard Wood, said accountability was lacking. "One of the most disturbing things is that these doctors can do anything and nothing happens," she said.

Army Capt. James Lemp was diagnosed with a stomach virus in 2003. Hours later, he was brain-dead from a stroke-like condition called vertebral artery dissection. Experts hired by his wife said that with proper treatment, he would have had a 90% chance of recovery.

Defending the doctrine

Feres supporters say the doctrine is necessary to protect the military from costly, time-consuming trials that could compromise military discipline. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a former fighter pilot, called Feres "a reasonable approach to ensuring that litigation does not interfere with the objectives and readiness of our nation's military."

For years, the Department of Justice and the Pentagon have joined forces to fend off legal and legislative challenges to Feres.