Joel Marrable was making peace with loved ones and preparing for his final days of his life.
The ex-Air Force airman and Vietnam War veteran was in the late stages of a bout with metastatic lung cancer. He moved to the Atlanta area to be closer to family and was a resident in the Eagles Nest Community Living Center, a long-term veterans care facility in Decatur, Georgia.
A doctor had given Marrable just months to live. Despite his health complications, the 73-year-old man had a second lease on life. He was in good spirits and making plans to transition into a place where he could spend his finals days in comfort surrounded by loved ones. He enjoyed spending time with his daughter, Laquna Ross, who visited him regularly at the care center.
He accompanied Ross on a family trip to the Bahamas in May 2019 and told loved ones “I am doing a lot better now” over the subsequent summer months. Marrable was also waiting for a book of poems he’d written to be published.
But his plans to die in peace came to a screeching halt when he was twice attacked by a colony of fire ants that bit him more than 100 times all over his body, his family’s legal claim contends.
For months, fire ants swarmed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs-run nursing home in which Marrable was a live-in patient. And the VA did little to the remove the insects, according to a federal lawsuit recently filed by Marrable’s family.
The infestation came to a head when the fire ants crept into Marrable’s bedroom on two separate occasions in September 2019, occupying the ceiling and walls before crawling into the man’s bed and ravaging his body, the family claims. The fire ants left red legions all over Marrable’s hands, arms and torso, which put him in agonizing pain. He died two days after the second attack.
Now Marrable’s family is suing the federal government and the exterminator tasked to rid the VA facility of the fire ants for $20 million.
“The family is determined to raise awareness about the treatment of the veterans at these facilities and make sure that things such as this don’t happen again to any other veterans,” one of the family’s attorneys, Josh Sacks, told Atlanta Black Star. “That’s their dual goal in pursuing the claim, and I think they have a keen interest in making sure that their father, who served honorably in the Air Force, is remembered with dignity and respect.”
Marrable’s three surviving children — Ross, Raquel Reed and Jamal Ratchford — filed the wrongful death complaint against the United States government Feb. 1 in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. Multinational pest control brand Orkin and its parent company Rollins, Inc., were also named as defendants. Orkin was contracted as Eagles Nest Community Living Center exterminator when fire ants infested and overran the Atlanta facility in 2019.
Sacks and Brewster Rawls, a Richmond, Virginia, attorney, are representing the family in the civil claim.
According to the lawsuit, Orkin was negligent in its failure to subdue the fire ant infestation. Attorneys allege staff at Eagles Nest knew about the pest control issue as early as February 2019. Food was left out in patients’ rooms for days without being sealed or removed.
Internal reports highlighted unsanitary living conditions and showed that several patients at the VA facility were bitten by fire ants in June 2019. More veterans suffered bites in July and August, yet the insects continued to overwhelm the government-run facility.
“I think it is important that the VA be accountable, and that veterans get the care they deserve and certainly the respect they deserve,” Rawls said. “When you don’t have a lot of time left, it makes it all the more precious for that person and their family.”
Marrable was particularly vulnerable, essentially bedridden with advanced stages of cancer. The fire ants finally invaded his room Sept. 2, crawling into his bed, all over his body and even into his diaper.
He was bitten well over 100 times.
Officials at the VA still failed to respond effectively, the lawsuit claims. Nurses bathed Marrable and temporarily transferred him while they cleaned his room. But they returned Marrable to his room Sept. 5 and the fire ants attacked him again, biting him dozens more times on his arms, legs and groin.
The suit argues the first attack severely weakened Marrable’s body and the second wave broke him. He died in “excruciating pain” two days later.
Attorneys for the family contend the bug bites killed or at least exacerbated causes leading to Marrable’s death. That challenges the prognosis of a private medical examiner who conducted Marrable’s autopsy and ruled that it wasn’t the ant bites that killed him.
According to a legal tort Sacks sent VA officials last May, the medical examiner didn’t have key information about the fire ant infestation when they determined lung cancer was Marrable’s cause of death.
The conditions at Eagles Nest violated federal regulations for long-term living care facilities, according to the family’s lawsuit. The U.S. government had duty to keep facility safe and free from pests and failed to take steps to protect the residents.
The lawsuit claims Orkin didn’t adequately investigate the extent of fire ant outbreak and failed to prevent more attacks. The company didn’t document the pesticides exterminators used, they failed to properly bait and spray the property and they didn’t warn VA staff members of the dangers posed by the infestation.
The complaint seeks $10 million apiece in compensation from both Orkin and the federal government. That consists of $7.5 million in punitive damages for Marrable’s estate and $2.5 million in wrongful death compensation for his three children.
“This is a man who had his faculties and was aware of his condition, and was at peace with it,” Sacks said. “But he had more life to live and more to give. And that is of paramount significance to this family.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in December reported that the VA decommissioned Eagles Nest and planned to permanently close it.
“What happened at Eagles’ Nest was unacceptable, and we want to ensure that Veterans and families know we are determined to restore their trust in the facility,” said Veterans Health Administration executive in charge Dr. Richard Stone, in a September 2019 statement. “Transparency and accountability are key principles at VA, and they will guide our efforts in this regard.”
Former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said he was “shocked” and “maddened” by news of Marrable’s death in a September 2019 statement, according to WSB-TV 2. He pushed for an investigation into the situation.
“This patient, at the end of his life, was clearly not being monitored closely enough, and I am so sad for his family who had to discover his insect-infested conditions before anything was reportedly done,” Isakson said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs released the findings of an administrative investigation into Marrable’s death in December 2019. The report highlighted “significant communication gaps” between leadership, care staff and families, lack of accountability concerning the pest issue, an an inconsistent reporting system.
The report indicated nursing staff didn’t document the Sept. 2 or Sept. 5 ant bites in their daily charts. They also failed to notify senior staff members. Administration didn’t learn about the incidents until Sept. 7.
Ross wasn’t informed of the fire ant attacks until after Marrable died. She noticed the bite marks on a previous visit and had to ask about them herself.
The medical records VA officials initially provided the family didn’t include documentation of either episode and made no mention of the bites. Pages had been removed, according to the May 2020 legal tort.
“The culture at the (Eagles Nest Community Living Center) contributed to a care environment where there was a lack of urgency and failure to provide care in a clean, home-like environment,” the heavily redacted report stated. “There was failure to document significant events in the affected CLC residents’ medical records and failure to notify and/or document notification of family members of significant events. Had notification to leadership and appropriate action been taken in early summer of 2019, it was more probable than not that additional CLC residents would not have been bitten by ants.”