LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The family of a Marine who killed himself after a tour of duty in Iraq will be allowed to proceed with a lawsuit against the federal government over his treatment by two Veterans Affairs facilities in Kentucky.
The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded Friday that the lawsuit brought by the family of 21-year-old Cameron Anestis of Georgetown shouldn't have been dismissed. Anestis' widow, Tiffany Anestis, sued the federal government in 2011, seeking $22.5 million in damages after her husband developed mental and emotional problems.
"You're just shocked," said Al Grasch, the attorney for the Anestis family. "The VA turned him away, not once, it turned him away twice."
Anestis' family claimed the VA was negligent when it turned away the Marine at two VA hospitals in Lexington when he sought a mental health evaluation and treatment.
A spokesman for the VA declined to comment on the pending litigation.
The VA may ask the court to reconsider its ruling, appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or allow the case to return to federal court in Lexington.
The government argued that the federal courts had no jurisdiction over its decision to turn away Anestis. Attorneys for the VA argued that the law shields the agency from lawsuits because its policies allow limited discretion for employees to determine whether a patient was in an emergency state.
Judge David W. McKeague, writing for the court, disagreed.
"The determination of a health care professional or an intake clerk as to the emergency state of a patient would not involve a consideration of public policy, but rather, only a consideration of the patient's health, and the discretionary function exception is designed to protect only the public policy considerations," McKeague wrote.
The case of Anestis is unusual, with the U.S. 6th Circuit having handled only one similar lawsuit and other jurisdictions seeing a limited amount of litigation stemming from decisions to deny emergency care, McKeague wrote.
Grasch said the ruling should open the door for other veterans and their families to sue the VA if they are wrongly refused help or health care and something tragic occurs.
"If the VA's position had been granted, it would have made it virtually impossible for any veteran or his family to sue the VA under any circumstance," Grasch said.
Grasch said Anestis was an outgoing young man before serving in Iraq. He attended The Citadel military school in South Carolina before enlisting in the Marines, becoming a lance corporal.
After he returned, Cameron Anestis told his family he had killed many people, including some civilians, Grasch said. Anestis became withdrawn, was extremely impatient and had temper outbursts.
Cameron Anestis, a Lance Corporal in the Marine reserves, went to a Lexington VA medical center for evaluation and treatment on Aug. 16, 2009, but was turned away after being told treatment wasn't available there. Anestis went to a second VA center in Lexington the next day and again was rejected, this time for not having a form showing he was a combat veteran.
The VA has a written policy saying no veteran should be turned away if he is deemed to be a danger to himself or in need of immediate help. Under the policy, the first VA center should have called an ambulance to transport Anestis to the second center, Grasch said.
"For whatever reason, they violated their own policy," Grasch said. "It's never explained why."
Unable to find the form he needed, Anestis became frustrated and violent, attacking his wife, who called 911 from another room. Grasch said while Tiffany Anestis was on the phone, she heard a gunshot and found that her husband had committed suicide.
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