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Vet who contracted hepatitis C wins malpractice suit against Miami VA hospital

MIAMI — A failure by Miami Veterans Affairs Medical Center staff to properly clean colonoscopy equipment likely infected a patient with hepatitis C, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan awarded U.S. Air Force veteran Robert Metzler and his wife a combined $1.25 million in their medical malpractice case against the United States government. Metzler, 70, and his wife, Lucy Ann Metzler, had sued for a combined $30 million.

Metzler was one of more than 11,000 veterans who received colonoscopies with improperly-cleaned equipment between 2004 and 2009 at VA hospitals in Miami, Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Augusta, Ga., according to an investigation by the VA’s own Administrative Investigation Board.

The hospitals used equipment that had been rinsed after each patient rather than being sterilized by steam and chemicals as called for by the manufacturer. Investigators who took apart water tubes on some of the equipment that was supposed to be clean and ready for use instead found “discolored liquid and debris.”

Metzler, who received his colonoscopy in 2007, had tested negative for hepatitis C the previous year. He tested positive for the virus in 2009, days after the VA administration sent him a letter warning him of a “potential health risk” related to the endoscopic equipment used during his procedure.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, defending the VA, acknowledged the hospital “breached” a “duty of reasonable care” but denied the equipment caused the health problems.

Dr. David Nelson, a board-certified doctor in internal medicine, testified that “there is less than a 0 percent chance” Metzler contracted hepatitis through his colonoscopy, according to the ruling. But the judge, despite acknowledging that VA records “strongly suggest” Metzler couldn’t have been infected by the colonoscopy, said the veteran had no other risks associated with contracting the virus.

“I realize that the chances of acquiring hepatitis C under these circumstances is slight,” Jordan wrote. “But I find that there is nothing to preclude Mr. Metzler from being one of those two persons in a trillion or billion who do get the virus.”
 

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