The Army is facing criticism about how it delivers information to families after calling a New York couple and leading them to believe their son had been killed in combat.

Sgt. Jesse Jasper's "Death"

On a peaceful Sunday Mr. Jasper was on camping holiday. At some point, he received an urgent message from the family liaison in his son's unit, the 82nd Airborne Division, based in Fort Bragg. The liaison told Mr. Jasper that she had a "red line message" that she needed to read to him verbatim. She then broke the news: "I'm sorry to inform you that on September 12 Sergeant Judin and Sergeant Jesse Jasper were killed in Afghanistan."1 After she repeated that message again, Mr. Jasper, believing his son was dead, fell to the floor in grief. .

While Mr. Jasper knew the military's policy is to notify families in person when a soldier has been killed, he assumed that because he was away camping all weekend, he probably received the phone call after the messenger didn't find anyone at home.

The Jaspers were given a number to call for more information, but decided to leave the campsite and make the phone call from their home in Niagara Falls, New York with the rest of their family members present. While making the 60-mile trip, they used the social networking Web site, Facebook to notify family members about the gathering. This resulted in many replies of condolence messages. The family spent hours mourning their son's death.

Sergeant Jasper's girlfriend, in North Carolina, happened to see the Facebook postings and immediately called the Jaspers. "She was screaming to me, 'He's not dead! He's not dead!'" Mr. Jasper said. "I said, 'How do you know this?' She said, 'I just got off the phone with him!'"2 To the Jasper's great relief and confusion their son called soon after.

Military Response

A spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division said that the unit notified all families of deaths within the unit to prevent undue worry and misinformation and the message was meant to inform them that Sergeant Tyler Judin, had been killed.

Reading from the script liaison officers were given to read, Major Brian Fickel said: "Sergeant Tyler A. Judin ... was killed in action while conducting combat operations in support of Bravo Troop 473 Cav."3 The message went on to say that Sergeant Judin's family had been notified and services would be scheduled.

"I can't speculate on how it was transmitted or how it was received," Major Fickel said, "but during that process the results speak for themselves. The family believed their son was killed."4

The family liaison said that she wasn't able to read the complete message before the call to the Jaspers was terminated, according to Major Fickel.

Do the Jaspers Have Any Legal Claims?

Thankfully, the Jaspers won't have to have a funeral for their son, they will see their son and speak with him and hopefully welcome him home. However, being told that their son died shook them up. It was tragic and heartbreaking news that deeply impacted them, even though the news turned out to be false.

The Jaspers may have the ability to sue the Army using a tort action called intentional infliction of emotional distress. To prove their claim they would have to show:

  • The Army did something that amounts to extreme and outrageous conduct
  • Conduct was intentional or reckless
  • The act caused their emotional distress, and
  • They suffered damages due to the severe emotional distress

This legal claim is quite difficult to prove. However, a government agency - an Army unit - informing a family of a death that didn't occur may amount to the level of extreme and outrageous conduct and recklessness required for this claim.

It's unclear whether the Jaspers will actually bring a lawsuit against the government. Nonetheless, what's clear is that the Army notification procedures need to be re-examined.

Revising the "Red Line Message"

An Army spokesman with Jesse Jasper's unit said officials may revise the written scripts used by volunteer liaisons to inform all families of any deaths within the unit to avoid similar misunderstandings in the future. Major Fickel said the unit was now considering starting the scripts with "your son or daughter is fine." Internal jargon such as "red line message" would also probably go, he said.

Sources
1 David Byers, I’m Alive US Soldier Jesse Jasper Tells Family, After They Were Told He Was Killed, Times Online, Sept. 16, 2009, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/Afghanistan/article6837433.ece, accessed Oct. 14, 2009.
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Questions for Your Attorney

  • In a case involving emotional distress, what amounts to reckless conduct or behavior to support a lawsuit, and does it vary depending on the facts of a case?
  • What relationship or connection must a person have to claim emotional distress - do you have to be close to the people who were physically harmed, say if a parent saw a child involved in a car-pedestrian accident?
  • In a case like the Jaspers, who are the possible plaintiffs - the soldier's family or does the soldier also have a possible legal claim?

Tagged as: Personal Injury, Personal Injury Basics, mistaken death, army mistake