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Siddiqui family defends $100-million lawsuit against Marines

Raheel Siddiqui, 20, died at the Marine Corps recruit depot at Parris Island, S.C., while in initial training.

COURTESY OF THE SIDDIQUI FAMILY

By TODD SPANGLER | Detroit Free Press | Published: January 8, 2018

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The family of a Muslim Marine recruit who died after being slapped by a drill instructor is arguing that a $100-million claim against the Marine Corps be allowed to go forward despite a longstanding legal precedent barring most lawsuits involving active-duty military personnel.

Raheel Siddiqui, a 20-year-old recruit from Taylor, died March 18, 2016, in a fall from a third-story stairwell at the Marines training base in Parris Island, S.C., after being hit by Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix, who was convicted of mistreating recruits at a court martial in November and sentenced to 10 years.

In October, Siddiqui’s family filed the lawsuit against the Marines, claiming negligence led to his death, which was ruled a suicide by a local coroner, a finding that is disputed by the family.

Late last year, the government asked that the lawsuit — filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit — be dismissed under a longstanding legal doctrine that holds the government cannot be sued for injuries or deaths involving active-duty military personnel that occurred in the course of their service.

“Siddiqui’s death is a tragedy and the U.S. Marine Corps has taken this matter extremely seriously,” then-acting U.S. Attorney Daniel Lemisch and Assistant U.S. Attorney Zak Toomey wrote the court. But the Supreme Court and lower courts, they went on to say, “have consistently held that all claims relating to injuries to active-duty military personnel are not actionable in civil courts.”

Late last week, however, the Siddiquis' lawyer, Shiraz Khan of Southfield, filed a response to the government, saying that even though the Marines argue that Siddiqui and all recruits are considered active-duty military personnel, they should not be, since the Corps’ own literature suggests a recruit is not properly considered a Marine until after he or she concludes boot camp.

Khan also argued that much of the negligence that led to Siddiqui’s death occurred during the recruitment phase, even before Siddiqui left for Parris Island. He said that instead of telling the former Truman High School valedictorian that the Marines presented “a golden opportunity,” the Marines had a duty to him and his family to warn them that allegations of abuse involving other Muslim recruits at Parris Island involving Felix had been raised.

“During this time, (the Marines) deliberately withheld material information from Raheel Siddiqui and (his family) regarding the conditions at Parris Island, preventing Siddiqui and his family from making an informed decision to enlist,” Khan wrote in a response to U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow on Friday.

Khan also reiterated the family’s claims that a suicide threat made by Siddiqui — which he quickly recanted, leading to his return to Felix’s platoon — was mishandled on the day the recruit was to begin his active training with that platoon, again indicating negligence occurred before he became active-duty personnel.

The Marines, said Khan, are “essentially attempting to evade complete responsibility from any and all claims in this case.”

A private meeting between the parties and the judge is expected to be held Jan. 18.

An investigation concluded that Felix hit, slapped and otherwise mistreated recruits, including Siddiqui, whom he called a "terrorist." Sidddiqui died after complaining of a sore, bleeding throat and being forced to run laps in the Marines barracks, eventually collapsing, at which time Felix slapped him.

Witnesses for Felix at his court-martial, however, indicated the instructor was trying to revive him and at times seemed to be trying to help the recruit. Shortly after the slap, Siddiqui ran through an exterior door and leaped over a stairwell, falling three stories, though it is not known whether he intended to hurt himself or was trying to get away.

Felix was convicted of mistreating other recruits as well, including, in 2015, calling another Muslim recruit a “terrorist” and making other remarks and ordering him into an industrial dryer and turning it on. Felix maintained his innocence throughout his court-martial, with his lawyers calling many off the allegations outlandish and overblown or accusing others of cutting deals to shift the blame to him.

Since Siddiqui’s death, his family has steadfastly denied that he would have killed himself as a faithful Muslim and has said if he jumped from the stairwell, he must have felt forced to do so. The government, in its request for dismissal, also noted that the family received $100,000 from the government plus a life insurance payment of more than $400,000 following Siddiqui’s death.

Contact Todd Spangler at tspangler@freepress.com.

©2018 the Detroit Free Press
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