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Qui tam complaints evolved from a 1777 whistleblower case

People who become whistleblowers file a “qui tam” complaint under the False Claims Act.

Everyone is familiar with whistleblowers in modern times but may not know that the first documented case went forward in 1777 and involved two naval officers.

Whistleblowing history

In 1777, a group of United States naval officers saw their commanding officer torture men who were British prisoners of war. Two of the naval officers, Samuel Shaw and Richard Marven, reported this abuse to Congress, whereupon the commanding officer charged them with libel and saw that they went to jail. In 1787, Congress passed a law to protect whistleblowers. Shaw and Marven appeared at a trial and the jury acquitted them.

The qui tam complaint

“Qui tam” comes from the Latin and essentially means “he who brings an action for the king as well as for himself.” A whistleblower files such a claim under the False Claims Act passed in 1863. President Abraham Lincoln signed this act into law during the Civil War when profiteers were selling sick mules and defective weapons to the Union Army. On behalf of the government, private citizens can file lawsuits against anyone they believe is defrauding the government.

Current claims

Today, health care is at the center of the vast majority of cases brought for defrauding the government, and company employees are in the best position to detect wrongdoing. Those who become whistleblowers file a qui tam complaint in secret. They may work under cover for years, reporting incriminating information to FBI agents and talking to no one about their undercover activities except for the authorized personnel who work on the case with them.

A sophisticated procedure

If Samuel Shaw and Richard Marven were alive today, they would no doubt be impressed with the qui tam procedure and the sophisticated means of investigation in cases of potential wrongdoing. Whistleblowers require protection, the assistance of experienced legal and governmental allies and the courage to expose fraudulent activities, often at considerable personal cost.

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