Family of Pittsburgh VA Legionnaires' victim sues U.S. Veterans Affairs Department

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The family of a Hampton man who died last month after contracting Legionnaires' disease at the Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs' hospital in Oakland filed a civil claim against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs today.

At a press conference this afternoon, the three adult sons of William E. Nicklas, 87, said they were devastated by his death on Nov. 23, which was "very preventable," their attorney, Harry Cohen, said.

"It appears as though the VA Hospital failed to properly maintain its water systems, despite recurring illnesses at the hospital and despite warnings from experts," Mr. Cohen said in a written statement issued prior to the press conference.

One of Mr. Nicklas' sons, Robert, said in the statement that prior to his father's death, "We were repeatedly told at the VA that they expected my dad to make a full recovery, until the time that they confirmed that he had contracted the Legionnaires' disease. He should have been home with us now, celebrating his birthday and then Christmas with my mom, his children, and grandchildren."

Pittsburgh VA spokesman David Cowgill said he could not respond to the filing of the claim.

Mr. Nicklas, a Navy World War II veteran who later had an auto body shop in Glenshaw, was in very good health before being admitted in early October to the Pittsburgh VA's University Drive hospital in Oakland, his family said.

He stayed two days with instructions to follow up with his doctor.

He met with his doctor and took the prescribed medication, a beta blocker. But it made him nauseated and dehydrated.

On Nov. 1, he was admitted again to University Drive for dehydration and began recovering.

On Nov. 17, problems with his kidneys, liver and blood developed and his family was told Mr. Nicklas had an infection.

Four days later -- for the first time -- they were told he had contracted Legionnaires' disease, his family said.

His condition deteriorated rapidly and he died two days later, Nov. 23, the day after Thanksgiving.

Although the Pittsburgh VA never identified him publicly, Mr. Nicklas was the person the VA said on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 22, was the fifth person to contract Legionnaires' disease from a VA facility. The VA never publicly disclosed that he died and still has not.

The Pittsburgh VA did tell the Allegheny County Health Department, which on Nov. 30 revealed that someone had died after contracting Legionnaires at the VA.

It was on Nov. 16 that the VA first publicly revealed it had four confirmed cases of Legionnaires' which patients contracted from the University Drive hospital.

Legionnaires' disease is a pneumonia-like disease that is contracted from the bacterium Legionella, and typically spread through water systems to people.

About 8,000 to 10,000 people each year are hospitalized with the disease, but the Centers for Disease Control and other experts believe many more cases occur each year that go undiagnosed as simple pneumonia or other afflictions.

Legionnaires' can be fatal in 5 to 30 percent of cases, depending on who it strikes and where it is acquired.

The civil claim that the Nicklas family filed today is known as a Form 95, which the federal government requires people to submit before any formal lawsuit is filed.

After filing Form 95, the federal government will have six months to investigate and respond and/or settle the claim before any lawsuit can be filed in U.S. District Court.

Mr. Nicklas entered the Navy in 1944 and served in the Pacific theater. He was a tail gunner on a Navy fighter plane with Air Sea Rescue Force and served in Guam, Saipan, Okinawa and other Pacific islands.

He was honorably discharged in 1946 and returned to Pittsburgh to start his auto body shop, which he ran for many years.

He married his wife, Greta, in 1953 and had three sons.

Mr. Nicklas worked with his son David, who also was in the Navy, and Hampton officials and veterans groups, to erect a memorial to those who died serving in the military.

That monument stands in front of Hampton's community center.

"My father was very proud to be a veteran, and proud of his service to our country," David Nicklas said in a statement. "He had Medicare and supplemental insurance, so he could have chosen any hospital. But as a veteran he trusted the VA to care for him. The VA betrayed that trust, just like they have for other veterans who were sickened. We want to do everything we can to make sure no other veterans suffer like my father did and like we are now."

Mr. Nicklas' third son, Ken, said in a statement that his father's death was unexpected, so much so that he was robbed of seeing his father alive one last time.

"I spoke to him days prior to his death and told him I would be coming home to see him over the Thanksgiving holiday," he said. "Once we were advised of him contracting the Legionella bacteria on November 21st, I changed my travel plans to come home a day earlier than expected, but once I arrived at the airport my brothers advised me of his death about two hours earlier. I never got a chance to see him and that's devastating to me."

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Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579.


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