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Legionnaires’ Patients in Flint Blame Hospital

FLINT, Mich. (CN) - A hospital in Flint, Mich., exposed patients to water that caused Legionnaires' disease, killing at least one woman, four Genesee County residents claim in court.

Along with lead poisoning and elevated levels of E. coli, exposure to Legionnaires' disease is one of many dangerous conditions linked to the 2014 switch of Flint's water supply from Lake Huron, which the city of Detroit uses, to the corrosive Flint River.

"During the 17-month period that the city of Flint was drawing corrosive water from the Flint River, the state reported 87 cases of Legionnaires' disease, including nine deaths," a complaint filed last week states.

Three Genesee County residents sickened by the disease, and the estate of one who died, say state epidemiological reports named McLaren Regional Medical Center as the top source of exposure for cases of Legionnaires' disease, a form of walking pneumonia caused by the water-born bacteria Legionella.

"A state analysis showed that a high number of those diagnosed with Legionnaires in Flint had been patients at defendant McLaren in the 14 days prior to the onset of symptoms," the complaint states.

Each of the four plaintiffs allegedly came down with Legionnaires after receiving treatment at McLaren for unrelated conditions. Debra Kidd, the 58-year-old Genesee County woman represented by her estate, died on Aug. 2, 2015, within a week of her Legionnaires diagnosis.

In addition to McLaren, the complaint names four individual state officials as defendants, saying it was obvious long before the water-supply switch and immediately thereafter that the water was making Flint residents sick. To begin with, the water was discolored and had a foul stench right out of the taps.

When General Motors stopped using Flint water at its production facilities just six months after the April 2014 switch, it reported that "the highly corrosive nature of the water was ruining its parts and production machinery," the complaint states.

"The state health department, including defendants, did not act sooner to alert the pubic of the Legionnaires' epidemic because its experts had linked the cases to defendant McLaren and it was thought that the Legionnaires' problem would be resolved if defendant McLaren took appropriate actions," the complaint continues.

"The Legionnaires' problem was obviously not resolved as evidenced by the fact that plaintiffs contracted Legionnaires' disease throughout 2014 and 2015, shortly after presenting to, and being treated by, defendant McLaren's Flint hospital."

Kidd's estate and the other plaintiffs, one of whom claims to "miraculously escaped the jaws of death," blame McLaren for lacking safeguards that would have prevented Legionella colonization of.

While the complaint lobs one count of premises liability against the hospital, it accuses the individual state employees of gross negligence.

Geoffrey Fieger, an attorney with the Southfield firm Fieger, Fieger, Kenney & Harrington, represents the plaintiffs, who seek exemplary damages.

The individual defendants are Stephen Bush, who worked as the Lansing district office supervisor for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality; MDEQ water-treatment specialist Patrick Cook; MDEQ District 11 engineer Michael Prisby; MDEQ water-quality analyst Adam Rosenthal; MDEQ communications director Bradley Wurfel; and Liane Shekter-Smith, the chief of the MDEQ's Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance.

Pressure to hold public officials accountable for the crisis remains ongoing. Congress has already held two hearings on the matter and announced plans Friday for a third.

Though there is no date yet for this hearing, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee says it expects Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to testify along with Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Their perspectives on this issue are important as we seek to ensure a crisis of this magnitude never occurs in another American city," committee chairman Jason Chaffetz said in a statement. "The diverse and insightful panel of witnesses assembled will shed light on many of our remaining questions and help us propose reforms to the authorizing committees."

Snyder has been a no-show at the past two hearings, which included testimony from EPA and local government officials, plsu Flint resident LeeAnne Walters.

Chaffetz said the hearings have shown "that, among other issues, failures occurred at every level of government."

A second panel of experts expected to testify at the next hearing boasts recently ousted EPA official Susan Hedman; Flint's former emergency manager Darnell Earley; former Flint mayor Dayne Walling; Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards; and EPA water expert Miguel del Toral.

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