Joel Marrable and his daughter Laquna Ross.
Joel Marrable and his daughter Laquna Ross. Image Credit: Family/NYT

Washington: The family of a military veteran who died in 2019 after he was bitten all over his body by fire ants while at a Veterans Affairs facility in Atlanta filed a wrongful-death lawsuit this week against the US government and a pest control company.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in US District Court in Atlanta, claims that Joel Marrable, 73, an Air Force veteran who had advanced lung cancer, died prematurely because he suffered more than 100 fire ant bites in two attacks shortly before his death.

There is “poison” in the fire ant bites, Brewster Rawls, a lawyer representing the three adult children of Marrable who filed the lawsuit, said in an interview Wednesday. “The shock of the bites and the toxins, cumulatively, were just enough to push the poor man over the edge.”

An autopsy ordered by officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs said the bites did not contribute to Marrable’s death, a claim the lawsuit disputes, citing outside medical experts.

What are fire ants?
Fire ants, also called thief ants, are any of a genus of insects in the family Formicidae, that occur in tropical regions of the world, such as Central and South America, and in some temperate regions, such as North America. The best-known member of the genus, the red imported fire ant was accidentally introduced into the United States from South America. The red or yellowish ants are one to five millimetres in length and can inflict a severe sting.

Marrable had served in the Air Force from 1962 to 1968, and by 2019 was staying at the Atlanta VA Medical Centre’s Eagles’ Nest Community Living Centre, near one of his three adult children, Laquna Ross, according to the lawsuit, which describes two fire ant attacks he suffered shortly before his death.

$20m lawsuit

By September 2019, Marrable was largely “immobile” and “bedridden” as a result of his cancer, according to the lawsuit, which seeks $20 million. That condition made Marrable “incapable of mounting a sufficiently physical or emotional response” when he was attacked, the lawsuit said.

On Sept. 2, the fire ants “invaded” his room at the facility and “moved unchecked across the walls and floors, up into Mr. Marrable’s bed, and all over Mr. Marrable’s body, including into his diaper,” the lawsuit said.

Marrable was bitten more than 100 times that day, and his family was not notified, according to the lawsuit.

Officials at the facility washed and temporarily relocated Marrable, who was returned to his original room a short time later. Then, on Sept. 5, he was attacked again by fire ants, according to the lawsuit. He was “bitten dozens and dozens of times,” it said.

After this attack, his family was notified, their lawyers said.

Two days later, on Sept. 7, Marrable died.

His death generated headlines across the country and sparked promises of changes at the facility.

On Sept. 17, 2019, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced an on-site review and retraining of staff members at the facility “in response” to Marrable’s plight.

Facility to close

In December 2020, officials announced that the facility would close, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. It cited internal agency documents putting the estimated cost of planning and building a new facility at more than $70 million.

Joshua Sacks, another lawyer representing the family of Marrable, said those changes might not go far enough.

“I think it’s an open question as to whether or not the impact of those steps changes the culture within the system, which is a major concern to the family,” Sacks said. “They don’t want this circumstance, or similar circumstances, to happen to other service members.”

According to the lawsuit, an autopsy conducted by the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office at the request of the Department of Veterans Affairs concluded that the fire ant bites did not contribute to Marrable’s death. The lawsuit contends that finding was based on “incomplete information” because blood tests were not conducted.

The lawsuit cites several medical experts who disagree with the finding from DeKalb. Among them is Dr Richard deShazo, a professor emeritus at the University of Mississippi Medical Centre, who has expertise in examining fire ant bites and who, according to the lawsuit, said that the numerous bites Marrable experienced “caused or contributed to his death.”

“The Atlanta VA Health Care System continues to mourn the loss of Joel Marrable,” Gregory Kendall, a spokesman for the Veterans Affairs Department, told The Military Times. “However,” he added, “we do not comment on pending litigation.”

The Justice Department did not immediately return an email message seeking comment Wednesday night. Nor did the Department of Veterans Affairs.

A spokesperson for Orkin, the pest control company, told The Military Times that, according to its records, the company was hired only “to perform limited exterior pest control services” for part of the facility and was “not hired to perform interior pest control services.”

Rollins Inc., the parent company of Orkin, did not return a voice message Wednesday.