Appeals court upholds dismissal of suit over Taylor Marine recruit's death

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the dismissal of a $100 million lawsuit brought against the military by the Taylor family of a 20-year-old Marine who died three years ago during boot camp.

Raheel Siddiqui

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals said the wrongful death suit is barred under the often-criticized Feres doctrine, which relegates claims related to injuries to active duty military personnel to the military and not the civil courts.

"Plaintiffs call upon us to disregard or overrule Feres. We would not be the first court to consider doing so. As the Ninth Circuit noted, 'We can think of no other judicially-created doctrine which has been criticized so stridently, by so many jurists, for so long,'" Judge Jane B. Stranch wrote for the panel. 

"Unless and until" the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the 69-year-old Feres doctrine, the courts remain bound by it and, "accordingly, find plaintiffs’ claims barred for lack of subject matter jurisdiction," she wrote.

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

The lawsuit argued that Marine recruiters misled Siddiqui by not warning him about the abuse of other Muslim recruits at Parris Island, and that military officials were negligent in failing to protect him once at the training depot, where Siddiqui died in March 2016 after falling three stories. 

Siddiqui's parents, Ghazala and Masood Siddiqui, argued the government was also negligent by almost immediately declaring their son's death a suicide without fully investigating the circumstances. 

The Siddiqui family's attorney, Shiraz Khan, said they will "continue to fight and take action in the direction of justice." 

"This is America, and those interested in joining our military forces need to be protected and valued, rather than misled and abused," Khan said in a statement.

"Although the Siddiqui family’s suffering is difficult to witness, they are relentless in their pursuit for justice — not only for their son but for each and every American who wants to serve his or her country."

Khan had argued that 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.

"Feres is inapplicable where no military relationship exists!" Khan said. "Therefore, this case needs to be looked at specifically in parts, the wrongs committed against Raheel Siddiqui long before his enlistment and all that transpired thereafter." 

The appeals court disagreed by arguing that "if Siddiqui's death was incident to his military service, then a claim of negligent enlistment relating to his death is also barred by Feres." 

"There is no dispute that Siddiqui was on active duty when he died, and we conclude that his death during basic training falls squarely within the wide reach of the Feres doctrine," Stranch wrote. 

Like the district court, the appellate panel criticized the Feres doctrine's reliance on the military's so-called "generous" no-fault compensation, saying it's outdated. 

U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow in his November ruling noted 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. 

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

A military court recently affirmed Felix's conviction and 10-year prison sentence for crimes including the abuse of three Muslim recruits, including Siddiqui.

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