As It Happens

Man whose wife died in childbirth applauds bill to hold military accountable for medical malpractice

Lt. Rebekah Daniel bled to death in childbirth at the naval hospital where she worked. Walter Daniel’s attempts to sue took him all the way to the Supreme Court.

Retired U.S. Coast Guard Lt.-Cmdr. Walter Daniel calls bill 'a good first step'

Walter Daniel's wife died in childbirth in 2014 at the military hospital where she worked. His daughter is now five years old. (Submitted by Walter Daniel)
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Transcript

Walter Daniel became a widower just hours after he became a father. 

His wife, U.S. navy Lt. Rebekah Daniel, bled to death at Naval Hospital Bremerton where she worked in 2014.

Walter Daniel, a former Coast Guard officer, still doesn't know exactly what went wrong. But he says an independent doctor reviewed Rebekah's file and told him that standard procedures weren't followed. 

"In my opinion if those protocols were followed, she'd be alive today," Daniel told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

After Rebekah's death, Daniel tried to sue. It was only then that he discovered something known as the Feres Doctrine, a long-standing rule that makes it virtually impossible for active-duty service members to hold the government liable for injury and death — even if mistakes by military doctors are to blame.

Now, that doctrine is one step closer to change. On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow troops to file claims over medical malpractice. 

Although the change comes too late for Daniel and his now five-year-old daughter, he's still celebrating. 

"I think it's a great step in the right direction for our country and our service members."

Named for a hero 

The Feres Doctrine takes its name from Second World War hero Lt. Rudolph Feres. According to the New York Times, Lt. Feres parachuted into Normandy on D-Day and fought his way through to the Battle of the Bulge and victory in Europe. 

Unlike so many other young men, Feres survived all that, only to die stateside — in a barracks fire in 1947. When his wife tried to sue, the Supreme Court ruled against her, establishing the precedent that thwarted Daniel's fight for compensation some seven decades later.

It's not about the benefits or the money. It's about the accountability.- Walter Daniel

Speaking with the Times, Feres's nephew — himself a veteran of the Vietnam War — said he's frustrated that his uncle's name has become associated with denials for other soldiers. 

"All he did in his career, and this is what he's known for," said Joe Feres. 

An undetected tumour and a long-awaited change

The bill passed on Wednesday was introduced by Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier and has bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress.

In the lead up to this week's vote, Speier worked to raise awareness alongside Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal, whose case may now succeed where so many others — including Daniel's — have failed. 

In 2017, Stayskal received a routine chest scan following a gunshot wound he sustained in Iraq in 2004. He believes that scan picked up tumours in his lungs, but says he wasn't notified until he went back again a few months later. By then, his cancer had metastasized. 

Speaking with CBC Radio, Stayskal said the real reward this week isn't the possibility of compensation. It's the recognition of a right available to so many others. 

"As service members, we've been denied this simple right for so long … and we fight so hard to enable these laws and the things everybody gets to enjoy — and now we can as well." 

Accountability at last

Daniel, left, and his wife, U.S. navy Lt. Rebekah Daniel, in uniform. (Submitted by Walter Daniel)

Daniel feels the same way.

"It's not about the benefits or the money," he said. "It's about the accountability." 

For Daniel, injustice lies in the military's lack of transparency and the fact that if his wife had been a civilian or they'd gone to a civilian hospital, compensation would have been within his grasp. 

"If we were at a standard hospital, not on a military base, we would have been able to file a suit against that hospital for medical malpractice." 

Daniel says he's confident the Feres Doctrine will one day be overturned entirely — and that he'll help any way he can.

In the meantime, he's focused on his daughter, and says their ordeal has given him a sense of purpose — both as a father and as an advocate for others. 

"We're people of faith and we believe that … when you have tragedies, you try to find purpose. And I think this legislation was a little glimmer of hope or purpose for what happened on that night." 


Written and produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

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