Lawrence County pastor sues VA over Legionella illness

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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs seemed to take responsibility for the Rev. Gerald N. Caskey's Legionella diagnosis, then reversed itself, spurring his lawsuit, the retired sergeant first class said Saturday.

Rev. Caskey, former pastor at Unity Baptist Church in Harlansburg, Lawrence County, on Friday added his complaint to a flotilla of lawsuits against the federal government stemming from the 2011 Legionnaires' outbreak at the University Drive facility in Oakland. His case stands out because of his relatively brief exposure to the bacteria, and because of his family's history of service and sacrifice.

"I am keenly disappointed with the VA for not doing what they said they were going to do, because they took responsibility, and now they're denying responsibility," Rev. Caskey said. "I lost a son and another one is medically retired because of a brain injury and PTSD and so forth."

Suing his country brought "a gut-wrenching feeling ... because you feel, why do I have to do this?"

The 72-year-old Pine man and his wife, Debra A. Caskey, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court Friday, alleging negligence and seeking damages. It echoed claims by other families of deceased and sickened veterans that VA officials were slow to alert patients and to address the Legionella in the hospital's water system.

According to the lawsuit, in October 2011, Rev. Caskey and his wife went to the hospital to pick up medicine he needed for kidney disease and the auto-immune condition ankylosing spondylitis. While waiting, he ate and drank and used the bathrooms and water fountains.

During the week that followed, he developed a fever and chills, and coughed up blood, and was soon diagnosed with pneumonia, according to the complaint. Tests of his urine conducted at the VA were positive for Legionella, the lawsuit indicated.

VA officials apologized, then denied his claim, he said.

The VA argued that its records did not list Rev. Caskey as a patient during the two weeks prior to the emergence of symptoms, said his attorney, Douglas Price. "I don't think that they factored into their position that he had been there to pick up his prescriptions," the attorney said.

Mr. Price wrote in the complaint that "while the pneumonia has resolved, there are lingering issues of fatigue, shortness of breath and the risk for additional pneumonias following the Legionella pneumonia which he contracted in October of 2011."

Rev. Caskey said the Legionella has reduced the treatment options for his other conditions, which have worsened.

He joined the army as a chaplain's assistant at 30 years of age, and was later assigned to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Stuttgart, Germany, where he had a top-secret clearance. Mrs. Caskey was an army photographer. Rev. Caskey retired from the army in 1996.

One of the Caskeys' sons, Joseph, a Marine, died following a 2010 improvised explosive device attack in Helmand province in Afghanistan. Another son, Joshua, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury due to a suicide bombing in Iraq, where he served in the Marines.

"I know that we're not by any means the only ones," said Rev. Caskey. "So many people have lost their loved ones."

Another son, Jeremy, serves in the Air Force.

The family was among scores of military clans honored in 2012 at a Steelers home game. Also that year, their lost son's name was placed on the Joseph D. Caskey American Legion Post 80 in Ross, and volunteers remodeled Sgt. Joshua Caskey's Cranberry home, free of charge, to make it easier for him to navigate.

Spokespersons for the Veterans Affairs and the Department of Justice, which defends lawsuits filed against the federal government, could not be reached for comment Saturday.


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord. First Published May 10, 2014 11:58 AM

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