Q13 FOX Season of Giving

After wife dies in Naval Hospital Bremerton, widower looks to Supreme Court for answers

SEATTLE -- When a local Navy lieutenant bled to death hours after giving birth at Naval Hospital Bremerton, her widower began a search for answers that could lead him all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Walter Daniel is trying to overturn a little-known legal doctrine that prevents service members from suing the federal government for medical malpractice or wrongful death.

He said he is fighting to hold the military medical system accountable for all who serve.

When Walter's daughter, Victoria, was brought into this world, his wife, Rebekah "Moani" Daniel, was taken from it.

More than four years later, Walter is still trying to figure out why his healthy wife bled to death within hours of giving birth.

"I didn’t know that we couldn’t get any answers," Walter said.

He keeps hitting a wall because his wife was a Navy lieutenant.

"If something goes wrong, you can’t ask questions if you’re a service member," attorney Andrew Hoyal explained.

Walter’s search for answers led him to Hoyal's office at Luvera Law Firm in Seattle.

"We knew at that time it was going to take a long time, that we were headed to the Supreme Court to try to change the law," Hoyal said.

The law is known as the Feres doctrine, which protects the federal government from any medical negligence claim if the patient is an active-duty service member.

After losing his wrongful death appeal, Walter is petitioning the Supreme Court to take his case.

"Walt lost his wife, his little girl lost her mother two hours after she was born," Hoyal said. "She’s entitled to know what happened to her mother when she’s grown."

"You know, that’s the hard part: Being left in the dark," Walter said.

And left in the dark by the people for which his own wife worked. Rebekah was a labor and delivery nurse at Naval Hospital Bremerton. Walter shows us a picture of the two of them at a promotion ceremony in the same hospital where she died.

"It was my worst nightmare," he said.

Medical records obtained by Walter’s attorneys show the rate at which Rebekah bled out, but her pregnancy was considered low risk. Court documents claim her healthcare team "failed to follow specific, well-known standards of care" for women experiencing postpartum hemorrhage. It goes on to say that it was a completely preventable death.

Naval Hospital Bremerton told Q13 News they thoroughly examined the circumstances surrounding Lt. Daniel’s death. But that investigation is private. Even her widower can’t see the results.

The Supreme Court established the Feres doctrine in 1950 as a means to protect the U.S. from being sued if military members are injured or die from performing their duties.

The Navy is claiming Rebekah bleeding to death after childbirth was “incurred incident to her military service" because they were paying her salary the day she died.

Walter was also serving in the military at the time. He was a Coast Guard officer in Seattle. Had Rebekah gone into that same hospital as a military spouse and not a service member herself, Walter would have been able to sue for wrongful death.

"Lt. Daniel walking into that hospital on March 8, 2014, is the same as Mrs. Daniel walking into that hospital on March 8, 2014. There’s no difference," Walter argued. "At the end of the day, she was still a woman giving birth to a child."

It's a child Walter was left to raise on his own. Now 4 years old, he says Victoria is starting to ask questions.

"She’s curious," he said. "There’s pictures around the house and other artifacts but we haven’t had the conversation about what happened."

He's hoping the Supreme Court can give him the answers. But even if the Navy gave him the answers he seeks today, he said he wouldn't drop his lawsuit and move on.

"The overall system wouldn’t be fixed," he said. "This is not about the Daniel family...this is about the military healthcare system as a whole and providing transparency for all service members."

The U.S. military currently operates under a no-fault compensation system. In other words, no matter how an active-duty service member dies, the family will get death benefits.

In a statement, the Department of Defense argued against creating exceptions to the Feres doctrine, saying it would be unfair if military members could sue for more compensation in cases of medical negligence but not in cases of combat injury or death.

Walter should hear in the next few months if the Supreme Court will take his case.

His attorney admits it’s a long shot, but even the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals -- which was forced to deny his lawsuit -- said in its opinion that, "If ever there were a case to carve out an exception to the Feres doctrine, this is it. But only the Supreme Court has the tools to do so."