Soldier’s injury spurs malpractice claims policy changes

By Jonathan Austin, Army News ServiceMay 31, 2024

Secretary of the Army, Hon. Christine Wormuth, met with Spc. (R) Dez Del Barba at the Pentagon on November, 28, 2022. Del Barba’s story of perseverance and recovery from necrotizing fasciitis during basic training educated many in the U.S. Army about the importance of timely diagnosis and treatment.
Secretary of the Army, Hon. Christine Wormuth, met with Spc. (R) Dez Del Barba at the Pentagon on November, 28, 2022. Del Barba’s story of perseverance and recovery from necrotizing fasciitis during basic training educated many in the U.S. Army about the importance of timely diagnosis and treatment. (Photo Credit: Sgt. David A. Resnick) VIEW ORIGINAL

An Army family’s five-year struggle and advocacy efforts led to major changes in how the Department of Defense considers non-economic payments in medical malpractice claims filed by active-duty service members.

The changes, published May 10 in the Federal Register, say that potential financial damages in medical malpractice claims will no longer be offset or reduced by the compensation otherwise provided by the Department of Defense or the Department of Veterans Affairs. This change will ensure that families receive full compensation for pain and suffering.

“It wasn't until the family brought this issue to the forefront that we were able to advocate on behalf of the entire military to remove the offset,” said Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth. “Pfc. Del Barba and his family deserve the credit for bringing attention to this issue.”

The case began when Pfc. Dez Del Barba, of California, reported to what is now Fort Moore, Georgia, for basic training in January 2019 in preparation for attending Army Officer Candidate School. That February, he became ill and over the course of a week his symptoms worsened.

Army Pfc. Dez Del Barba in basic training.
Army Pfc. Dez Del Barba in basic training. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

After numerous visits to sick call, Del Barba was transported to a Columbus, Georgia hospital, where he was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, a form of a flesh-eating infection linked to a Strep A infection.

The Army had earlier received a positive test result for Del Barba’s Strep A infection but had not acted on it.

Placed in a medically induced coma, Del Barba was given a 10% chance of survival. As the infection ravaged his legs and torso, he underwent repeated surgeries in Columbus and at the burn unit at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital to remove skin or tissue.

His left leg was amputated as the infection spread.

“What happened to me did not have to happen. This was preventable,” Del Barba told a Congressional subcommittee.

The Army is currently reviewing Del Barba’s medical malpractice claim.

“My life has changed forever. That once active and healthy 21-year-old man now must deal with a lifetime of challenges and obstacles because of the neglect I suffered,” he said.

“The last five years our family has worked tirelessly not just for our son … but for countless servicemen and women who have been grossly mistreated by the department due to military medical malpractice. This long-overdue change will finally bring some accountability to those responsible for their inexcusable actions. Our nation’s Servicemen and Women, our heroes, deserve better medical care,” the Del Barba family said in an emailed statement.

The DoD policy change also clarifies that future lost earnings may be awarded until the time DoD determines that the claimant is, or is expected to be, medically rehabilitated and able to resume employment.

“In addition to Pfc. Del Barba’s resilience and focus on his own recovery, the most remarkable aspect of his story is how he championed this change for all service members,” explained Secretary Wormuth.

Spc. (Ret.) Dez Del Barba enjoys playing tennis as he tries to heal.
Spc. (Ret.) Dez Del Barba enjoys playing tennis as he tries to heal. (Photo Credit: Photo courtesy the Del Barba family) VIEW ORIGINAL

Del Barba’s mother says he earned his bachelor’s degree in business management but cannot and likely will never be able to work.

“There are moments when we may think we cannot, until we change our mindset to say we can. I feel grief for all I have lost, but I am grateful for all that I have. We must stand firm, honor the sacrifices of our heroes, and fight for justice,” Del Barba said in an emailed statement.

The family wants more attention paid to the risk of necrotizing fasciitis, and May 31 is Necrotizing Fasciitis Awareness Day, with a focus on the impact of the disease.

The Del Barba family has also formed a nonprofit, called Operation Dez Strong, to assist children ages 4 through 18 who face or have had an amputation and need assistance in acquiring and adapting to prosthetic devices.