“Can I sue Indian Health Services (“IHS”) for medical malpractice?” This is a question we have been asked a lot over the years, particularly as it pertains to the Department of Veterans Affairs (the “VA”); however, the answer is the same for IHS. The question is always made in connection with the same scenario – we receive a call or email from a Native American (or a family member of a Native American) seeking our guidance as to what legal rights exist in light of the substandard medical care given by IHS, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. The answer is technically no – it is not possible to sue the IHS. According to federal law, federal agencies such as IHS cannot be named as defendants to lawsuits for torts (i.e., civil wrongs including negligent acts) of their employees. However, please do not stop reading this blog post just yet. You definitely have the right to seek damages.
An individual injured by an IHS employee’s negligence does have a legal right to recovery, it’s just not directly against IHS itself. Rather, the Native American (or his or her family member, depending on the situation) may be able to sue the United States government for damages resulting from IHS employees’ malpractice. With that said, some points must be made about this process.
The first, and most important, is that the process of suing the United States is one laden with technicalities which, if not followed, will result in a forfeiture of your claim before you ever file the lawsuit. In fact, we have observed the United States attempt to exploit these technicalities on several occasions in efforts to have a meritorious claim “thrown out of court.” The second is that lawsuits against the government can be filed in a number of locations (called “jurisdictions”), and each jurisdiction does things differently according to local rules and customs. These local requirements can offer strategic advantages and disadvantages in the case and can also operate as a pitfall for the unknowing traveler trying to navigate litigation without an experienced guide. The third is that there is a time limit placed on the process to pursue a claim against the United States, which can take the form of a “statute of limitations,” a “statute of repose,” or both. Failure to comply with the timing requirements will also prevent successful pursuit of the claim.
This is all a longwinded way of saying – Native Americans and their family members who have been injured by IHS employees’ medical malpractice do have legal rights, and it is important that those rights be protected by counsel with experience. At Rawls Law Group, we represent the rights of Native Americans and their families on a regular basis. If you or someone you know has been injured as a result of medical care offered by IHS, let us help by providing a free review of the case. It never hurts to be informed of your options.