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$11.3M Settlement in Nursery Case

April 3, 1998

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) _ The federal government has agreed to pay $11.3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the families of nine newborns who were allegedly injected with a toxic painkiller at an Air Force nursery.

Many of the babies stopped breathing and turned blue. Some suffered permanent damage, including impaired speech and motor skills, gastrointestinal illness and forms of paralysis.

In 1996, their parents had won a $27 million verdict against Maxwell Air Force Base hospital’s nursery. The government appealed, then agreed to settle Wednesday.

Under terms of the deal, the money paid to six of the families will be invested and distributed over the children’s lives, meaning the deal could wind up being worth more than the $27 million verdict, depending on how long the children live.

David Byrne III, an attorney for the families, said the deal ``meets the needs of the children in terms of their future medical care, educational expenses and to compensate them for the pain and suffering they experience.″

The settlement must be approved by a federal court. A hearing was scheduled for April 15.

In 1996, a federal judge ruled the Air Force acted negligently when it allowed ex-Airman Michael Beckelic _ described in court records as ``mentally unstable″ _ to work in the hospital nursery at Maxwell in the mid-1980s.

The judge also ruled that the children’s medical problems were a direct result of being injected with a toxic dose of lidocaine.

Beckelic denied doing anything improper and was never charged criminally. A prosecutor has said there was not enough evidence to bring a case.

Beckelic had an unpublished number in Redding, Calif., and could not be reached for comment Friday.

Last fall, he said the government had not been contacted him about the case since 1989, when he was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force after being found guilty of abusing his wife and child. He was sentenced to one year’s hard labor.

Beckelic got a job in 1996 at Mercy Medical Center in Redding, Calif., where he had apparently did not tell officials of the allegations against him in the Maxwell case. He was fired last October after the hospital learned about the charges.

At Maxwell, 32 babies who had been born healthy suffered sudden respiratory problems over three years. An Air Force investigation in 1988 found that Beckelic had been on duty every time. The parents of many of the children then sued the government.

Gail K. Johnson, a Justice Department lawyer, declined comment.

Byrne and his partner, George Beck, will receive approximately $2.8 million from the government in fees, according to the settlement. The judge denied the attorneys’ request to keep the settlement confidential.

Under the proposed deal, the girl who suffered the most, Asia Sharpe, will immediately receive $2.15 million, with $3.5 million to be placed in annuities. She is guaranteed to receive at least $10 million and could get as much as $22 million depending on how long she lives.

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