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First wrongful-death lawsuit filed in Pittsburgh VA outbreak of Legionnaires' disease

PITTSBURGH — A wrongful-death lawsuit, expected to be the first of several to follow the outbreak of the Legionnaires' disease in a Pittsburgh veterans hospital, was filed Friday by a family of one of the victims in federal court against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh claims administrative, plumbing, infectious disease and medical staff at the Pittsburgh VA made numerous mistakes that led to the death of William Nicklas, 87, who died Nov. 23, 2012, after contracting Legionnaires' during treatment for other issues at the VA's University Drive hospital.

A Navy veteran who served in the South Pacific during World War II, Nicklas was the fifth and last case of a veteran who died during the outbreak in 2011 and 2012 at the Pittsburgh VA, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on the outbreak.

Another 17 veterans also got sick with the disease at the VA but survived.

On Monday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed that another veteran who died after contracting Legionnaires' and whose case was initially classified by the CDC as a non-hospital acquired case, may have also acquired it at the Pittsburgh VA.

The lawsuit, filed by Nicklas' wife, Greta, and three adult sons, seeks $8 million in damages and makes wrongful death, negligence and civil rights claims. It lays out in sometimes emotional description the days leading up to Nicklas' death.

The filing, by Pittsburgh attorney Harry Cohen, also describes the internal VA issues leading up to the outbreak, beginning with the 2006 closure of the Special Pathogens Laboratory at the Pittsburgh VA that specialized in Legionnaires' research and prevention.

The lawsuit was filed only after the family followed federal law and first filed a federal civil claim with the VA, which then had six months to respond.

That six month period expired without the VA ever responding to the claim, something that bothered the family.

"In my opinion that was the strategy all along," William Nicklas' son, Bob, said in an interview today. "They dragged their feet and didn't respond just to frustrate the families."

Despite that foot-dragging, Bob Nicklas said the family never considered not pursuing a federal lawsuit.

"When you're talking about five, and maybe six deaths now, we can't let it go away," he said. "We're going to keep pushing and pushing."

shamill@post-gazette.com
 

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