Navy Can’t Be Sued Over Young Officer’s Suicide

     CHICAGO (CN) – Family members of a hospital corpsman who committed suicide cannot seek damages from the Navy, the 7th Circuit ruled.
     Christopher Lee Purcell enlisted in the Navy at age 18. Three years later, on Jan. 27, 2008, Purcell committed suicide.
     Shortly before his death, the 21-year-old contacted his sister and several other people on MySpace. He wrote: “I don’t want to die, I don’t know what else to do, I have a loaded gun in my lap right now, I’m so scared.”
     A friend who was also stationed at the Brunswick Naval Air Station, called base security and reported that Purcell was contemplating suicide and had a gun.
     Arriving on the scene, officers found an empty gun case and bullets on top of a television stand but no weapon. When the officers tried to restrain Purcell, a struggle ensued. He was eventually subdued by five officers.
     Back in his room, Purcell was permitted to use the bathroom and one of his handcuffs was removed. He was accompanied by his friend, Nathan Mutschler.
     “After entering the bathroom, Purcell pulled his gun from his waistband and committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest,” court documents state.
     Two responding officers, Petty Officer First Class Mitchell Tafel and Petty Officer First Class David Rodriguez, faced courts-martial for negligent conduct and were punished via extrajudicial proceeding.
     Purcell’s family filed an administrative tort claim with the Navy seeking $45 million in damages. The claim was denied on the Feres doctrine, a tenant of the Federal Tort Claims Act that bars lawsuits brought by soldiers against the United States and its employees for military service-related injuries.
     U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow dismissed the family’s subsequent lawsuit, and the 7th Circuit affirmed on Tuesday.
     “At the time he committed suicide, which occurred in his on-base residential building, Purcell was on active duty; living in the barracks on a military base, experiencing, according to [his father], various social and emotional problems that developed shortly after he enlisted,” Judge Joel Flaum wrote for the appellate panel.
     “Together, these facts demonstrate that Purcell stood ‘in the type of relationship to the military at the time of his … injury that occurrences causing the injury arose out of activity incident to military service.'”
     In so ruling, the court rejected the argument that Feres should not apply because Purcell was effectively acting as and treated like a civilian during the relevant events.
     “Like many courts and commentators, we recognize the challenges presented by the Feres doctrine,” Flaum wrote. “In light of its enormous breadth, however, we affirm the judgment of the District Court.”
     Chris’s father, Mike Purcell, operates a Facebook memorial page that provides updates on the suit.
     “They swore, they threatened him, they intimidated him,” he told a local news station. “They didn’t think that he was suicidal; they just thought he was drunk. They just thought he was acting out.”
     “They didn’t do what they were supposed to do. They admitted they didn’t do what they were supposed to do. And to date no one has been held accountable for it.”
     Judge Terence Evans had been a member of the appellate panel but did not participate in the decision of this case because he died on Aug. 10.

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