Families of five Legionnaires' victims settle civil claims

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At the beginning of what became an 11-hour mediation session Thursday between the federal government and the families of four victims of the Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System, family members were given a chance to make a statement.

Sharon Heinnickel, a daughter of the first fatal victim of the outbreak, John Ciarolla, 83, who died in July 2011, rose to make a statement to the three federal attorneys and a mediator gathered in a conference room in The Grant Building, Downtown.

"This has been the long-est funeral any of us have been through," she told the attorneys, acknowledging the nearly three years of pain, confusion and -- for much of the past 16 months -- anger when they found out why their father really died.

The Ciarolla family, as well as the other three families, all eventually decided to settle their civil claims against the federal government later Thursday.

"It was a brutal day emotionally," said Maureen Ciarolla, another of John Ciarolla's children.

Neither the families nor the attorneys would disclose the settlement amounts.

But the amount was never going to be satisfying, Maureen Ciarolla said, because "there is still no accountability; no one is going to be held responsible."

In addition to the Ciarollas, whose case was headed to trial, two other families and one surviving victim settled their claims Thursday: the family of Frank "Sonny" Calcagno, 85, of Delmont, who died in November 2011; George Christoff, 64, of Altoona, who contracted the disease in August 2012, but survived; and the family of Greg Jenkins, 54, of Erie, who died in October 2012, just over a year after contracting the disease.

"I can't say I was satisfied," said Mr. Jenkins' brother, Dave, who was at the conference Thursday for his family. "I just wish there was some other way that [the VA] could be dealt with because I don't think they understand how bad a mistake was made."

Mr. Christoff and the Jenkins family had filed a required civil form with the federal government, noting their intention to sue, but neither case had yet been filed in civil court. The Calcagno family had not yet filed the civil form but was allowed to settle with the government.

Also, on March 26, the family of the last victim of the outbreak, William Nicklas, 87, of Hampton, who died in November 2012, settled their claims.

Doug Price, an attorney who represented the Nicklas family in their federal lawsuit, said the case was settled on the day members of the Nicklas family, including William Nicklas' widow, Greta, were to be deposed. "A lot of [why they settled] had to do with not wanting Mrs. Nicklas to go through all of this again" in a deposition, he said.

In all, 22 veterans were sickened during the outbreak in 2011 and 2012, and six of them died after contracting the disease at the Pittsburgh VA in Oakland.

The Pittsburgh VA tried to initially blame the outbreak on a water treatment system, but multiple investigations pegged the blame on poor decisions and a lack of knowledge on the part of VA employees.

U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Schwab, who is overseeing all of the Legionnaires' civil claims -- there may ultimately be more than 20 in federal court -- approved all five settlements, attorneys for the families said.

The four families who settled on Thursday were all represented by the same Philadelphia-based attorney, John Zervanos, who specializes in Legionnaires'-related cases.

"At the end of the day, the U.S. government was prepared to concede liability in the case of Mr. Ciarolla," Mr. Zervanos said. "The court case would have simply been about damages."

The settlement offer from the two U.S. Department of Justice attorneys and one VA attorney on Thursday acknowledged that was true, Mr. Zervanos said. The Justice Department and the VA declined to comment.

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


Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579. First Published April 4, 2014 6:05 PM

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