The 69-year-old widow of a retired Army major has been awarded $469,966 in U.S. District Court for the death of her husband, who collapsed after an operation by Cmdr. Donal M. Billig, the former Bethesda Naval Hospital heart surgeon convicted of manslaughter in three patient deaths.
The ruling last week against the government, which includes $350,000 for the emotional suffering of Lily S. Grubb of Lancaster, S.C., is the largest sum awarded in cases stemming from surgery performed by Billig. Grubb's civil claim was made under the Federal Tort Claims Act and argued during a three-day trial before Judge Joe F. Anderson for the District of South Carolina.
Billig was court-martialed in 1986 for the involuntary manslaughter and negligent deaths of three patients, including retired Maj. William Franklin Grubb Jr. He also was convicted of 19 counts of dereliction of duty for operations in 1983 that he undertook without proper supervision. He is serving a four-year prison sentence at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and was recently denied parole.
Since Billig's court-martial, only the second time a Navy doctor has been accused of killing a patient through negligence, almost three dozen relatives of retired or active servicemen and women have filed claims involving Billig. In the Grubb case, the government admitted liability and testimony was limited to what amount of compensation his widow should receive.
"The money that the government wanted to give Mrs. Grubb ($150,000) barely covered her economic losses," said her attorney, William Harper. "They apparently thought the emotional injury to Mrs. Grubb was meaningless . . . . I view this as a victory for her."
Officials of the Justice Department and the U.S. attorney's office for the District of South Carolina could not say yesterday if they will appeal the decision.
According to Navy records, 32 claims have been filed in connection with Billig's operations, asking for a total of $144 million in damages for injuries and deaths.
To date, eight claims have been settled for a total of $1.29 million and three have been settled without payment, Navy spokesmen said yesterday.