Purcell v. United States

656 F.3d 463 (2011)

Quick Summary

Quick Summary Icon

Michael Purcell (plaintiff) brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the United States after his son, Christopher Lee Purcell (defendant), an active-duty Navy corpsman, committed suicide at Brunswick Naval Air Station. The suit alleged failures by Navy and Department of Defense personnel.

The main issue was whether this suit was barred by the Feres doctrine. The Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s dismissal, concluding that Purcell’s death was incident to military service and therefore fell under the Feres doctrine.

Facts of the Case

Facts of the case Icon

Christopher Lee Purcell (defendant) was an active-duty Navy corpsman at the Brunswick Naval Air Station when he tragically took his own life. Navy and Department of Defense personnel, responding to a tip that Purcell was suicidal and possessed a firearm, failed to find the gun during their search.

Purcell was later allowed to use the bathroom accompanied by a friend, where he then used his concealed weapon to commit suicide.

Michael Purcell (plaintiff), Christopher’s father, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), alleging that the defendants failed to properly handle the situation by not calming Purcell, not searching him according to Navy regulations, and failing to maintain custody, leading to Purcell’s death.

Procedural Posture and History

History Icon
  1. Michael Purcell filed a wrongful death suit against the United States in federal district court under the FTCA.
  2. The district court dismissed the case, citing the Feres doctrine as barring the suit.
  3. Michael Purcell appealed the dismissal to the United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether the wrongful death suit filed by Michael Purcell against the United States is barred by the Feres doctrine under the FTCA.

Rule of Law

Rule Icon

The Feres doctrine establishes that the Government is not liable under the FTCA for injuries to servicemen where the injuries arise out of or are in the course of activity incident to service.

Reasoning and Analysis

Reasoning Icon

The court found that Christopher Lee Purcell’s suicide was incident to his military service as it occurred on a military base, while he was on active duty, and in response to military personnel attempting to intervene in his suicidal crisis.

The court noted that despite criticisms of the Feres doctrine, it remains binding law until changed by Congress or the Supreme Court.

It also highlighted that while Purcell’s estate did not receive benefits related to his death, this does not affect the application of Feres in this instance.


Conclusion Icon

The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Michael Purcell’s suit based on the Feres doctrine.

Key Takeaways

Takeaway Icon
  1. The Feres doctrine can bar wrongful death suits under the FTCA when the servicemember’s death is incident to military service.
  2. The broad interpretation of Feres means that even if military personnel fail to follow regulations, it may not allow for liability if the service member’s injury or death is closely related to military service.
  3. Benefits received or not received by an estate do not determine the applicability of the Feres doctrine.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes an activity 'incident to military service' for the purposes of the Feres doctrine?

An activity is considered ‘incident to military service’ if it’s integral to fulfilling military obligations, closely related to the unique duties of armed forces personnel, or occurs in a context where military interests are likely to predominate. Courts look at factors like the servicemember’s duty status, location, and the nature of the activity at the time of injury or death.

  • For example: A soldier undergoing required fitness training on base who gets injured would be considered engaging in an activity ‘incident to military service’.

How does sovereign immunity affect tort claims against the United States?

Sovereign immunity renders the United States immune from suit unless it consents to be sued, which typically occurs through legislation like the Federal Tort Claims Act. However, even under such acts, certain exceptions apply where the government retains its immunity.

  • For example: Even though the FTCA allows for lawsuits for government negligence, if a postal truck driver negligently causes a car accident while delivering mail, sovereign immunity may not apply due to a specific statutory waiver under the FTCA.

Under what conditions might courts depart from longstanding legal doctrines in tort cases?

Courts may depart from established legal doctrines if there are compelling reasons such as changes in law or society, a shift in policy considerations, or if adherence to the doctrine results in unjust outcomes. This can occur particularly when higher courts provide new interpretations or when legislatures pass laws that modify or override precedent.

  • For example: If research shows that adhering to a certain product liability doctrine leads consistently to unfair outcomes for consumers, courts might be persuaded to adapt or overrule that doctrine for more equitable results.


Last updated

Was this case brief helpful?

More Case Briefs in Torts