In a case that could cost the government as much as $1 billion, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the Department of Veterans Affairs must pay benefits to veterans who are disabled as a result of treatment in a VA hospital, even if the facility wasn't negligent.
In Brown vs. Gardner, the court unanimously upheld lower court decisions that Korean War veteran Fred Gardner is owed benefits equivalent to those given to veterans disabled during military service. His disability resulted from back surgery in a VA hospital.
A 1924 veterans law authorized such benefits. The VA's interpretation of the law, however, has required that veterans first show the VA hospital was at fault before receiving the benefits.
Mr. Gardner, who has suffered weakness in his left leg since the 1986 surgery in Temple, Texas, appealed the VA's denial of benefits to the Court of Veterans Appeals, which ruled in Mr. Gardner's favor. The veterans court was created in 1988 to review VA decisions.
The VA appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, which affirmed the veterans court decision. Then the agency challenged the award in the Supreme Court.
Justice David Souter, who wrote the high court's opinion, said Congress did not mention in the 1924 law a need to prove negligence in awarding benefits.
VA Secretary Jesse Brown said the department immediately will revise its policy to be consistent with the ruling.
"We have been holding some 8,000 veterans' benefits claims, waiting for the court to render its decision, and we will move expeditiously to decide those claims and award compensation," Mr. Brown said in a written statement.
The VA has estimated that a ruling in favor of Mr. Gardner could cost the department as much as $1 billion over five years to veterans with similar claims.
Bill Mailander, associate litigation director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, called the decision a "good result from the veterans' perspective" because it invalidated "regulations that existed for a long time without judicial review and (that) nobody challenged."