A federal appeals court Monday said a widower can sue the government for medical malpractice in the 1992 death of his wife, a Navy corpsman who died at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.
Kenneth D. Bradley claimed that negligent treatment his wife received at the Bethesda hospital and at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi caused her death from a bacterial infection of her heart.
The U.S. District Court in Baltimore threw out his case, saying that the military cannot be sued for an infection Sharon Bradley contracted while on active duty in the Navy as a medical laboratory technician.
Courts routinely dismiss lawsuits against the military by soldiers and sailors because such claims would “involve the judiciary in sensitive military affairs at the expense of military discipline and effectiveness.”
But a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond reversed the lower court’s ruling, saying there is no proof that the staphylococcus aureus infection that killed Mrs. Bradley was related to the staph-A infection she contracted while on active duty.
The appeals court also said that while Mrs. Bradley was still in the military at the time of her death, her status was essentially one of permanent retirement. She was placed on the temporary disability retirement list (TDRL) in 1991 as a result of complications from the 1989 staph-A infection.
“It’s not when the infection began that’s important,” said Bradley’s attorney, Dominick J. Salfi. “It’s important when the negligence occurred, and it occurred when she was on TDRL status.”
Mrs. Bradley enlisted in the Navy in 1982 and was serving as a lab tech in 1989 when she was accidentally pricked and infected with staph-A bacteria. The infection eventually spread to her right foot, forcing her to be hospitalized from December 1989 to January 1990.
By the end of 1991, Mrs. Bradley was wheelchair-bound, only able to walk 15 minutes each day and was working part-time. In November 1991, she was placed on temporary disability.
In February 1992, the Navy flew Mrs. Bradley from her home in Orlando, Fla., to Bethesda for a bone graft to her right foot to repair damage caused by the staph infection.
During an overnight stay at Keesler on Feb. 14, Mrs. Bradley complained to medical personnel of severe chest pains and a high fever, but they did nothing for her, court documents stated.
When she arrived at Bethesda, she immediately went to the emergency room. Mrs. Bradley made two or three trips to the emergency room before being admitted to the medical center on Feb. 19. She was not treated with antibiotics until the next day.
Her condition deteriorated quickly and, after an eight-day coma, Mrs. Bradley died on March 2, 1992. Autopsy reports said she died from a staph-A infection in her heart.
After an extensive investigation, the Navy concluded that it was negligent in failing to aggressively treat the infection, said Salfi, who also said that the Navy wrote a letter of apology to Mr. Bradley.
Mrs. Bradley was 28 at the time, a mother and the “primary bread winner” for her family, Salfi said.
Mr. Bradley sued. The case was moved from Texas to Maryland, where the government successfully argued to have the lawsuit thrown out by the district court.
But the appeals court disagreed and ordered the case back to the district court for trial.
“The government was very arrogant. They really thought they had won all the battles up to this point,” Salfi said.
Lawyers in the U.S. Attorney’s Office who handled the case in Baltimore could not be reached for comment Tuesday on the appeals court ruling.
Salfi said he was pleased with the appellate decision and expects the case to go to trial in six to eight months. He said this case could pave the way for other people with military malpractice suits to get their cases heard under the Federal Tort Claims Act.
“They [the appellate judges] really have taken a huge step here,” Salfi said. “We are extremely happy that this area of the law now seems to be much more equitable than it has been.”