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Second lawsuit filed against VA Pittsburgh over fatal Legionnaires' outbreak

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By Adam Smeltz

Published: Friday, Dec. 6, 2013, 12:03 p.m.

Relatives of a second Western Pennsylvania veteran sued the federal government on Friday over his death from a Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

World War II veteran John J. Ciarolla, 83, of North Versailles was among the first of at least five patients to die in what the VA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded was a two-year outbreak that ended in November 2012. At least 16 others likely contracted Legionnaires' from bacteria-tainted tap water at the VA campuses in Oakland and O'Hara, the CDC said.

A wrongful-death complaint filed on behalf of Ciarolla's estate alleges medical negligence in his personal treatment and overall failure by the Pittsburgh VA to prevent the disease, a waterborne form of severe pneumonia. His adult children want to force accountability on the VA system, said their attorney, John N. Zervanos, who expects to file as many as four more civil complaints.

The lawsuit, seeking unspecified damages, lists three of Ciarolla's adult children — John R. Ciarolla of Irwin, Sharon P. Heinnickel of Greensburg and Dawn L. O'Connor of Peletier, N.C. — as executors of his estate.

U.S. Attorney David Hickton announced on Nov. 21 that his office identified no criminal missteps in the handling of the outbreak. A report by the VA Office of Inspector General found the Pittsburgh VA did not follow established guidelines in preventing the Legionella bacteria that cause Legionnaires' disease.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is finalizing a review for recommended administrative actions tied to the outbreak, spokeswoman Ramona Joyce said, adding that the VA could not comment on pending litigation.

The widow of World War II veteran William E. Nicklas, 87, of Hampton filed a wrongful-death complaint against the government in August. Nicklas died at the Oakland VA hospital in November 2012.

The Nicklas family's attorney, Downtown-based Harry S. Cohen, said a court-ordered mediation conference is scheduled on Monday.

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




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