PURCELL v. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (August 23, 2011)

In January of 2008, Christopher Purcell was serving as a hospital corpsmen in the United States Navy stationed at the Brunswick Naval Air Station. Purcell had experienced social and emotional problems since his enlistment a few years earlier. Base personnel received a notification on January 27 that he had a gun and was suicidal. Government law enforcement officers responded and arrived at his on-base residents. He was alive. Although the officers found a gun case and ammunition, they did not locate a weapon. They handcuff Purcell but removed the handcuffs to allow him to use the bathroom. While in the bathroom, Purcell shot and killed himself with a gun that he had hidden in his waistband. Michael Purcell, Christopher's father, brought a wrongful death action against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Judge Lefkow (N.D. Ill.) dismissed the complaint pursuant to Feres, which shields the government from FTCA liability when the injuries complained of "arise out of or are in the course of activity incident to service." Purcell appeals.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Bauer, Flaum, and Evans (who, as a result of his death, did not participate in the decision) affirmed. The Court began by noting the controversy and dissension surrounding the Feres doctrine but also noting that a Supreme Court majority reaffirmed the doctrine the last time it addressed it. At that time, the Supreme Court identified three rationales for the doctrine: a) to need to protect the government-Armed Forces relationship, b) the availability of a statutory compensation scheme, and c) the need to avoid interference with internal military affairs. The fundamental question under Feres is whether the injury at issue "arose out of activity incident to military service." Applying that test, the Court concluded that the district court correctly dismissed the complaint. Citing the doctrine's "enormous breadth," the Court relied on the facts that: a) Purcell was on active duty, b) Purcell lived in on-base housing, c) Purcell was suffering from emotional problems that began after his enlistment, and d) Purcell was avoiding the military law enforcement personnel that were sent to assist him.