Second lawsuit filed in deadly Pittsburgh VA Legionnaires' outbreak

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The family of a veteran filed a wrongful death lawsuit Friday against the federal government, making it the second such case in the wake of the 2011 and 2012 Legionnaires’ outbreak at the Veterans’ Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

The five adult children of Navy veteran John Ciarolla, 83, of North Versailles, the first victim to die during the outbreak, are seeking $10 million from the United States of America for the Pittsburgh VA hospital’s negligence and more than three weeks of pain and suffering he endured before his death on July 18, 2011.

The first lawsuit was filed in August by the family of Navy veteran William Nicklas, 87, of Hampton, who died Nov. 23, 2012, making him the last victim in the outbreak.

But these two cases may just be the tip of the iceberg, according to documents the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obtained from the VA in a Freedom of Information Act request recently.

In all, 21 civil claim forms, known as Form 95s — a required precursor to filing a federal lawsuit — have been filed by families of 18 alleged victims. The damages requested range from $75,000 for one survivor, to the $10 million claimed by the Ciarolla family.

All of the claim forms the Post-Gazette obtained were heavily redacted by the VA’s Freedom of Information Act officers, removing all names, so it was not clear on two other claim forms if claimants were patients or perhaps worked at the VA.

Three of the claims were filed by people who worked or volunteered at the Pittsburgh VA. The Pittsburgh VA has long maintained that only patients were sickened by the water-borne disease.

The outbreak was traced to problems the VA was having maintaining a water treatment system on its two main campuses, University Drive in Oakland and H.J. Heinz near Aspinwall, and was determined to have sickened 22 veterans in all, and at least six of them died after contracting the disease.

Once the form is filed, the government has up to six months to respond to the claim before the claimant is allowed to file a federal lawsuit.

Attorneys representing the bulk of those cases say they expect all of them to end up in federal lawsuits.

John Zervanos, the Philadelphia-based attorney representing the Ciarolla family, said he had one brief conversation a couple months ago with a government attorney, who told him they were “evaluating” the Ciarollas’ claim and “had an interest in resolving” the case.

“But it went no further than that,” he said.

The Nicklas family is being represented by Pittsburgh-based attorney Harry Cohen and his firm, as are the families of two other veterans who died.

On Monday, federal attorneys are scheduled to meet with the Nicklas family’s attorneys in a court-ordered mediation session, which is standard for such cases, Mr. Cohen said.

Among other claims in the Ciarolla lawsuit, his family alleges that after it was suspected that he had Legionnaires’ because of a fever and a cough, on June 27, 2011, he was given a single dose of Moxifloxacin, an antibiotic that has been proven to be effective against Legionnaires’, particularly if administered close to the onset date.

But after one dose, the lawsuit alleges, Ciarolla was taken off the drug and wasn’t put on another antibiotic that the VA recommended for treatment of Legionnaire’ for four days.

He was started on another antibiotic, Azithromycin, on July 1, after a urine antigen test came back three days after it was taken, confirming that he did have Legionnaires’.

“Why it takes three days [to put him on Azithromycin] I don’t know,” said Mr. Zervanos, the Philadelphia-based attorney representing the Ciarolla family. “Why not put him on [Moxifloxacin or Azithromycin] for the three days before when you suspect he has the disease? That’s not going to hurt anyone. And we know it’s most effective in the first days of the disease.

“But, instead, now the bacteria has a chance to run wild and now it’s harder for them to treat the problem,” he said.

Mr. Ciarolla died a little more than two weeks later, on July 18, 2011.

Though the family is seeking $10 million damages, Maureen Ciarolla said she and her siblings are much more interested in finding answers to what happened to their father.

Because they were never able to ask the VA’s doctors questions directly after they found out that their father was part of the Legionnaires’ outbreak, now, Ms. Ciarolla said, “when we get to discovery [in the federal case] they can’t withhold information; they have to give it to us. We still want answers.”

Sean D. Hamill: or 412-263-2579. First Published December 6, 2013 1:16 PM

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