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Pittsburgh VA settles Legionnaire's suit for $227K

Jun. 5, 2014 - 03:42PM   |  
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PITTSBURGH — A federal judge has approved a $227,500 settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the estate of an 83-year-old Navy veteran who contracted Legionnaire’s disease at a Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs hospital.

The veteran, John Ciarolla, of North Versailles, died of the severe form of pneumonia — which is spread by bacteria commonly found in water supplies — on July 18, 2011, less than a month after he was admitted to the VA hospital in the city’s Oakland section for a urinary tract infection.

A spokesman for the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System referred questions about the settlement to the Justice Department, which declined to comment on the award approved Thursday by U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab.

The family’s attorney, John Zervanos, explained that the settlement amount was driven by Ciarolla’s advanced age and otherwise poor health.

The damages in a wrongful death lawsuit hinge on a person’s ability to provide for his survivors, as well as the person’s pain and suffering. Because Ciarolla was in his 80s and nobody was financially dependent on him, that decreased the family’s leverage in mediation, the attorney said.

“If he was 42 years old with a wife and young kids, the case would have been worth significantly more,” Zervanos said.

Ciarolla is one of at least six Pittsburgh VA patients who died of Legionnaire’s disease contracted due to water treatment problems at the Pittsburgh hospitals between February 2011 and November 2011.

More than 20 patients were sickened during that time, prompting U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a Pittsburgh-area Republican, to call for hearings on the outbreak.

Robert Petzel, the VA’s undersecretary for health, testified the problems in Pittsburgh prompted changes about how the agency treats its water supplies at hospitals, and other protocols. But Petzel was criticized for, among other things, refusing to rescind a $63,000 bonus that Michael Moreland, a regional VA director and former CEO of the VA Pittsburgh system, received in 2012 before the Legionella problems were publicized.

Moreland has since retired and kept the bonus, which he was awarded for more than 30 years of service. Petzel has since resigned.

The Ciarolla family argued that Pittsburgh VA officials were negligent both in how they treated Ciarolla’s illness and for allegedly failing to take extra precautions once they learned there were Legionella bacteria in the water.

The family will receive about $159,600 from the settlement, with Zervanos’ firm receiving the rest to cover legal fees and expenses.

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