Judge dismisses suit over Taylor Marine recruit's death

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Raheel Siddiqui, 21, died after a fall at the Marine Corps’ Parris Island boot camp two years ago.

A federal judge has dismissed the $100 million lawsuit brought by the Taylor family of a 20-year-old Marine who died two years ago during boot camp in South Carolina.

U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow on Tuesday ruled that, under what's known as the Feres doctrine, claims related to injuries to active duty military personnel belong in military and not civil courts.

"Despite the serious questions that remain regarding the circumstances of Pvt. Siddiqui’s death, the court will dismiss this case," Tarnow wrote. 

"(D)espite strong reservations, the court remains bound by Feres and its progeny."

The parents of Raheel Siddiqui had sued the Marine Corps in 2017, alleging that he was assaulted, hazed and discriminated against at the training depot on Parris Island because of his Muslim faith.

The lawsuit argued that military officials were negligent in failing to protect Siddiqui, who died in March 2016 after falling from a third-story building.

Siddiqui's parents, Ghazala and Masood Siddiqui, argued the government was negligent by almost immediately declaring their son's March 2016 death a suicide without a full investigation.

Shiraz K. Khan, attorney for the Siddiqui family, had urged the court to deny the government's motion to dismiss.

Khan said the Feres doctrine did not apply to the case because Raheel Siddiqui had not yet started his active military service and was a civilian when he first started meeting with Marine recruiters in 2015.

But Tarnow concluded that, under binding precedent, Siddiqui's injuries arose from or were sustained in the course of activity incident to his military service, "even though Pvt. Siddiqui was not yet a Marine." 

Khan said in a statement: “Although the Siddiqui family is disappointed with today’s decision, we will proceed with our options under the law. After a meticulous review of this Court’s decision, our fight for justice is far from over and there is much to be examined.

“Factually, Feres is not an impenetrable shield, and this case is not only about the systemic hazing and tragic death of a young American on American soil, it’s also about the fundamental issues related to the military recruitment process.”

A Marine investigation into Siddiqui's death recommended discipline against several Marines including Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph A. Felix Jr.

Felix was sentenced a year ago to 10 years in military prison for abusing three Muslim recruits, including Siddiqui, among other charges.

Felix's former supervisor, Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, earlier this year pleaded guilty to charges including negligently returning Felix to work while he was under investigation for hazing a different Muslim recruit.

Tarnow noted the Siddiqui family's suit in part intended to "persuade the Marine Corps to deter the harassment of Muslim recruits that played a part in their son’s death."

"It is clear from the actions the Marine Corps took against Sgt. Felix and Lt. Col. Kissoon that they recognize the severity of the problem and are acting to combat religious discrimination at Parris Island," Tarnow wrote. 

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said there's a moral responsibility to hold those responsible accountable for Siddiqui's death and to continue to pursue justice for his family.

"No family should have to endure this kind of tragedy," Dingell said in a statement.

"I continue to believe that the coroner should revisit the suicide declaration as, even the Marine’s investigation shows not all the facts were present at the time of the ruling."

While Tarnow said he couldn't allow the family's suit to proceed, he noted heavy criticism of the Feres doctrine.

Since the Feres ruling, he wrote, "soldiers suffering even the most brutal injuries due to military negligence have been shut out of the courts." 

He also said the doctrine’s reliance on the military's so-called "generous" no-fault
compensation "has not withstood the test of time," noting the $100,000 death benefit and $400,000 life insurance payout that the Siddiquis received "are mere fractions of most wrongful death awards."

The September 11th Fund’s awards for wrongful death ranged from $2 million to $3 million, the judge said. 

"Those awards considered modern tort principles, including the focus on deterrence and compensation," Tarnow wrote.

"Pvt. Siddiqui’s death benefit is woefully out of step with such principles."

Khan did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment.