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Family of VA's Legionella victim sues government

| Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, 1:45 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Photos of the late William Nicklas at the age of 86 in 2011 (left) and in the Navy during World War II as held by his sons Dave Nicklas (left), 46, and Bob Nicklas, 56, both of Hampton.
Attorneys for the widow of World War II Navy veteran William E. Nicklas of Hampton brought a wrongful death complaint on Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, against the federal government, alleging reckless disregard for patients in a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the Pittsburgh VA.
Attorneys for the widow of World War II Navy veteran William E. Nicklas of Hampton brought a wrongful death complaint on Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, against the federal government, alleging reckless disregard for patients in a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the Pittsburgh VA.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Widow Greta Nicklas, 81, of Hampton in March 2013 and recounts the events surrounding her husband's Nov. 23 death after he contracted Legionnaires’ disease at the Pittsburgh VA.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The family of William Nicklas, a World War II veteran who contracted Legionnaires’ disease at the Pittsburgh VA and died, gather in the Hampton home of Nicklas' widow, Greta (center), 81, on Wednesday, March 6, 2013. They are son Dave (from left), widow Greta, son Bob and daughter-in-law Judy, all of Hampton. The family brought a wrongful death complaint against the federal government on Friday, Aug. 2, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Dave Nicklas (left), 46, and Bob Nicklas, 56, both of Hampton, talk about the Nov. 23, 2013, death of their father, William E. Nicklas, after he contracted Legionnaires’ disease in the Pittsburgh VA. The family brought a wrongful death complaint against the federal government on Friday, Aug. 2, 2013.

Attorneys for the widow of a World War II veteran brought a wrongful death complaint on Friday against the federal government, alleging reckless disregard for patients in a Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the Pittsburgh VA.

“I'm not (implying) necessarily an evil motive, but the conduct reflected a lack of caring,” said Downtown-based attorney Harry S. Cohen. “I don't think anyone wants these types of events to happen.”

He represents Greta M. Nicklas, 81, of Hampton, whose husband, William E. Nicklas, 87, was among five fatalities that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tied to an outbreak from February 2011 to November 2012.

The CDC traced the problem to bacteria-contaminated water at the Oakland and O'Hara campuses of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. At least 21 patients probably or definitely acquired the illness, a severe form of pneumonia, inside the health system, according to CDC findings.

The Nicklas complaint seeks $8 million under charges of wrongful death, infliction of emotional distress and additional violations.

A VA attorney recently suggested negotiations but did not offer specifics, Cohen said.

Pittsburgh VA spokesman David Cowgill said the agency could not comment on pending litigation. A national VA spokesman said he was looking into the matter.

The Nicklases' sons said in December that the family planned to sue and had initiated a preliminary claim. Federal officials had six months to investigate and respond before the family could formalize a full civil complaint in U.S. District Court. Cohen said the government did not respond to the initial claim.

The Nicklas complaint appears to be the first complete lawsuit filed in connection with the outbreak, although Cohen and other civil attorneys said they hope to file more.

Collectively, they indicated having filed at least four other preliminary claims over fatal and non-fatal cases during the outbreak, with more claims possible. Attorneys said their clients want to protect other veterans from meeting the same fate.

“I still think my brother would have had a lot more life left to him if he had not contracted that infection,” said Sandy Riley, 61, of Swissvale. She instigated a claim over the Legionnaires'-linked death of her brother, Lloyd “Mitch” Wanstreet, 65, of Jeannette and hopes to inspire some accountability, she said.

“These things never should have happened if they had maintained their systems properly,” Riley said.

The Nicklas complaint echoes that argument and makes several others, claiming the VA failed to control Legionella bacteria that cause the disease. The VA failed to give William Nicklas appropriate treatment and to test patients adequately for Legionnaires' disease, among many failures, according to the lawsuit.

Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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