Service members should be allowed to sue others in uniform for harm caused by sexual assault, a federal court has ruled. The decision, issued Aug. 11 by a three-judge panel with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, overrules the Feres doctrine – the longstanding ruling that bars service members from suing the government for damages they sustained while in uniform.
The case was filed by a former Army colonel, against a former Air Force General.
The plaintiff initially filed her lawsuit and prevailed in a federal court in California, where the alleged assault took place. The lower court ruled that the Feres doctrine was not applicable because the “alleged sexual assault [could] not conceivably serve any military purpose.”
The 9th Circuit panel – Circuit Judges Johnnie B. Rawlinson and Consuelo M. Callahan and District Judge Frederic Block – cited numerous related legal cases to justify their unanimous ruling.
“After our exhaustive examination of Supreme Court and Circuit precedent, we are compelled to hold today that no matter how expansive the Feres doctrine has become, it does not encompass the facts of this alleged sexual assault,” Rawlinson wrote in the opinion. “We are confident in our determination that this act of alleged sexual assault was not incident to military service.”
An Air Force investigation into the alleged incident came to no conclusion. As a result, the defendant faced no internal disciplinary action and was allowed to retire. He now can appeal the circuit court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.