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Federal judge dismisses $100 million lawsuit over Parris Island recruit death

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 WADE LIVINGSTON | The Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, S.C.) | Published: November 27, 2018

(Tribune News Service) — A federal judge has dismissed the $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against the government brought by the family of a deceased Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island trainee despite, as the judge wrote, the “serious questions that remain” about the circumstances of the death.

The decision, authored by Senior U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Tarnow of Michigan’s Eastern District, was issued Tuesday afternoon and comes more than a year since Ghazala and Masood Siddiqui claimed negligence by the government and military led to the death of their son, Pvt. Raheel Siddiqui, on March 18, 2016.

Siddiqui, a 20-year-old Muslim-American from Taylor, Mich., died after a three-story fall from his barracks. Shortly before that fall, he was struck in the face by a Parris Island drill instructor — one the Corps said should not have been supervising recruits since he was under investigation for abusing other trainees.

And while Tarnow dismissed the suit with, seemingly, great reluctance, he nonetheless felt compelled to bar the case based on a long-standing, controversial legal precedent — called the Feres doctrine.

That doctrine stems from a 1950 ruling that protects the government from being sued by active-duty military personnel injured “incident to service.”

But the Siddiquis’ attorney, Shiraz Khan, argued government negligence began before their son was an active-duty recruit — when he was being recruited, and when the Corps already had knowledge of abuse and hazing targeted at Muslim trainees, according to court documents.

Feres, however, is a jurisdictional doctrine, one the defense said barred the court from even hearing the case, regardless of facts in question.

Tarnow agreed, though he cited numerous challenges to Feres and questioned its relevancy in his decision.

Specifically, he cited a “scathing dissent” by late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia: “He described Feres as a ‘clearly wrong decision.’”

Tarnow continued, writing: “Since Feres, soldiers suffering even the most brutal injuries due to military negligence have been shut out of the courts.”

And he also said that a common rationale supporting Feres — that family members are generously compensated for the death of a service member — “has not withstood the test of time.”

He cited the $500,000 the Siddiquis received in the form a death benefit and insurance payout, noting they “are mere fractions of most wrongful death suits.”

He called that amount “woefully out-of-step.”

“Nevertheless, and despite strong reservations, the Court remains bound by Feres and its progeny,” Tarnow wrote.

In October, Brian Magee — a defense attorney representing military clients and former prosecutor at Parris Island — told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette that “(Feres) has been turned into a blanket prohibition for a service member suing the government for any tort (negligence being one).”

Magee declined at that time to opine on Feres’ merit in the Siddiqui case, but said a striking “amount of injustice” results from its usage.

The Marine Corps called Siddiqui’s death a suicide, saying that the recruit jumped to his death.

But Khan and the Siddiqui family disputes that claim. They have repeatedly asked officials — including Beaufort County Coroner Ed Allen — to change the cause of death from “suicide” to “pending” or “undetermined.”

And in April, the family shared with The Detroit Free Press inconsistencies that they had found in their son’s medical documentation after his fall, including typos and missing-but-later-found records.

Following the Tarnow’s decision, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) issued a statement urging Allen to “revisit the suicide declaration as even the Marine’s investigation shows not all the facts were present at the time of the ruling.”

Siddiqui’s drill instructor, then-Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix, was convicted of hazing and abusing Siddiqui and other Muslim recruits at a court-martial last year. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a dishonorable discharge from the Corps.

His commanding officer, Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, later pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty, among other charges, at a court-martial for, among other things, failing to prevent Felix — who was already under investigation for abuse — from supervising Siddiqui’s platoon.

Tarnow cited both of those cases in his decision, saying: “It is clear from the actions the Marine Corps took ... that they recognize the severity of the problem and are acting to combat religious discrimination at Parris Island.”

Last month, Khan expressed confidence that Tarnow would allow the case to be heard.

When reached by text message Tuesday afternoon, Khan said he would be issuing a statement “later today.”

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©2018 The Island Packet (Hilton Head, S.C.)

Visit The Island Packet (Hilton Head, S.C.) at www.islandpacket.com

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