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Butler v. United States, No. 11-2408

Decided: December 19, 2012

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the district court and dismissed Mrs. Butler’s action for wrongful death and loss of consortium under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”).

On January 29, 2004 Mr. Butler, a veteran, was examined by a physician at a VA center in Durham, North Carolina. It was discovered that Mr. Butler would need to undergo surgery for a vascular condition. After surgery Mr. Butler was paralyzed from the chest down, and his left leg was later amputated. On March 15, 2005, Mr. Butler died from sepsis. In April of 2005, Mrs. Butler filed a claim for dependency and indemnity compensation benefits with the VA. The VA later decided that Mrs. Butler was entitled to an award of benefits. In June of 2010, Mrs. Butler filed a complaint under the FTCA alleging wrongful death and loss of consortium. Mrs. Butler did not present an expert witness at trial because she believed this to be unnecessary given the binding effects of the VA’s Rating Decision on the district court. The district court granted summary judgment to the Government because under North Carolina law an expert witness is necessary to establish the standard of care in a medical malpractice action.

On appeal Mrs. Butler argued that the findings in the VA’s Rating Decision established all of the necessary elements to prove negligence and causation against the Government. Mrs. Butler relied on 38 U.S.C. § 511 and contended that the language should be construed as a bar to any court to reach a conclusion contrary to the Rating Decision. The Ninth Circuit decided a case similar to the one at issue here. It decided that FTCA liability was not established by a VA’s Rating Decision. The Fourth Circuit adopts the Ninth Circuit’s holding that the “questions” of law and fact to be given conclusive effect under § 511(a), and to be subject to no further review by a court, are only those which would affect the provision of the benefits awarded by the VA. Since adjudication of Mrs. Butler’s FTCA claim would not affect the validity of her VA benefits award, the court of appeals concluded that the district court did not err in its decision.

Full Opinion

-Samantha James