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Pittsburgh VA wants suit in Legionnaires' death tossed

| Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, 12:35 a.m.

The Pittsburgh VA wants a federal judge to toss a wrongful death lawsuit connected to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak, but lawyers for the widow of a World War II veteran say the government can't escape accountability for his death.

Greta M. Nicklas, 81, of Hampton sued the VA in August over the Nov. 23, 2012, death of William E. Nicklas, 87. His was one of five deaths the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tied to a Legionnaires' outbreak from February 2011 to November 2012.

In a court filing on Friday, the VA generally denied liability for Nicklas' death.

It said federal law governing when people can sue the government bars his widow's claim.

VA spokesman David Cowgill could not be reached for comment on Monday, a federal holiday.

“You absolutely can sue facilities like VA hospitals, provided you comply with preliminary procedural steps,” said Harry S. Cohen, an attorney representing Greta Nicklas.

Cohen and Doug Price, another attorney representing Nicklas, question the VA's outright denial of allegations in the lawsuit. Those are based on sworn congressional testimony by the CDC and LiquiTech Environmental Solutions, an Illinois-based manufacturer of the VA's water treatment system.

Tory Schira, chief operating officer of LiquiTech, said some allegations in the lawsuit are wrong, such as a claim that the VA called the company to consult because of the outbreak.

“We provided a courtesy visit in December 2011 because we were visiting other customers in the area and stopped in,” he said. “At no time did they request it.”

The company knew the system probably wasn't operating properly before the visit, because the VA hadn't switched out electrodes in at least five years and typically they need replacing every two to three years, he said.

“That was the glaring indicator to us, prior to even arriving on site,” Schira said.

At that meeting, VA officials acknowledged the copper-silver treatment system wasn't operating properly and asked for advice, he said.

“We provided them with a proposal of recommendations and services that they then ignored,” Schira said.

The Nicklas complaint seeks $8 million for accusations of wrongful death, emotional distress and additional violations.

Brian Bowling is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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