More than 20 Veterans Infected with Deadly Disease at two VA Hospitals

March 29, 2013

393732_emotional_veteran_remembers_2n.jpgMedical malpractice lawyers at Pintas & Mullins highlight a troubling story from VA Pittsburgh, where a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires' disease took the lives of at least five veterans. As many as 21 other veterans were sickened by the outbreak, which lasted between February 2011 and November 2012 at the VA's O'Hara and Oakland hospital sites.

The CDC informed VA Pittsburgh in October 2012 that contaminated tap water was the source of the outbreak. The hospitals only recently contacted the victims' families to inform them of the reason behind their loved ones deaths and injuries in an 'institutional disclosure' meeting. Many wonder why it took VA Pittsburgh so long - between 18 to 20 months - to disclose the source of sickness and to contact the victims and their families.

The family of one victim, Navy veteran John Ciarolla, recently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the VA. They were not informed of the Legionnaire's outbreak until a year and eight months after his passing. Federal policy requires medical officials to inform patients or their families about adverse events, including hospital conditions that could cause death or injury, as soon as possible. However, none of the affected victims and families were offered the 'institutional disclosure' meetings until five months after the CDC reports came out.

The meetings lasted about an hour, and VA officials never admitted any wrongdoing. Maureen Ciarolla, the daughter of the deceased, stated that no one who ever directly cared for her father was present at the meeting to answer questions about his treatment or state of being in his final days. Ciarolla died in July 2011 from complications from pneumonia; Legionnaire's disease is the second leading cause of pneumonia among patients in VA hospital intensive care units.

The family of World War II Navy veteran William Nicklas had a similar meeting with VA Pittsburgh officials in February 2013. They also intend to file a claim against the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the city's VA healthcare system had numerous chances to stop the Legionella bacteria contamination, the first one being in July 2011 when the first patient, Ciarolla, died of Legionnaire's. The system's infection-control, engineering, laboratory, and plumbing staffs, however, failed to catch the contamination until a staggering 16 months after this. The outbreak is now the focus of a VA and congressional investigation.

According to federal documents, when the fist patient tested positive for Legionnaire's, infection control employees checked for the bacteria only in the rooms where that patient stayed. The chief of infection control told VA officials that his staff did not perform any additional testing because the department is extremely understaffed and stretched thin. Infection control employees later determined the patient contracted the disease outside the hospital. Due to this, Pittsburgh VA's chief of staff was not aware of the deaths, which prevented the hospital from taking action earlier in the outbreak.

In February 2011, the University Drive VA reported an unusual amount of Legionella in its water systems, finding the bacteria in six of 16 water sites. The hospital immediately performed a 'heat and flush' procedure to kill the bacteria. Testing the next month came back clear of Legionella.

According to a CDC report, doctors never received a sputum sample from Ciarolla after his death, although the test was positive for Legionnaire's. As stated, the environmental samples were negative, though they were only taken from specific rooms. Thus, with no patient or environmental samples to review, the infection control teams blamed the University Drive VA for Ciarolla's contamination, as he spent about three days there previously.

Bacterial infections are incredibly dangerous in hospitals, and especially in VA facilities. What is particularly alarming about this case is that the most recent fatality, William Nicklas, checked into the VA hospital a full two days after the CDC informed VA Pittsburgh about Legionella contamination.

Wrongful death claims need to be filed within two years after the incident, so victims' families need to act quickly if they intend to file a lawsuit. Hospital negligence lawyers at Pintas & Mullins have extensive experience working with victims' families, and are trusted by clients throughout the country to advocate on their behalf. Although a lawsuit cannot remedy the pain of losing a loved one, our compassionate attorneys can help you receive the largest settlement possible to ease the financial burden.