Pittsburgh VA hospital facing lawsuit for Legionnaires’ death

A family from Hampton Township, a Pittsburgh suburb, announced recently that they intend to file a claim against the United States Department of Veterans Affairs as a result of a death from Legionnaires’ disease.

William E. Nicklas, 87, died from Legionnaires’ disease on Nov. 23, 2012, at the VA Hospital in Pittsburgh, which is operated by the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. Five patients had contracted the disease at the hospital in November, with Nicklas being the only fatality.

Harry S. Cohen, JD, attorney for the family, says he served the United States government with notice form to present a claim against the VA under the Federal Tort Claims Act, and the federal government will have six months to investigate and respond and/or settle the claim before his firm is permitted by law to initiate a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

“Based on information we’ve obtained, this death was very preventable,” Cohen says. “It appears as though the VA Hospital failed to properly maintain its water systems, despite recurring illnesses at the hospital and despite warnings from experts.”

Nicklas had been in good health until first being admitted to the VA Hospital in early October 2012 for shortness of breath, Cohen says. He was admitted for two days and discharged with instructions to follow up with his doctor. In the weeks that followed, Nicklas visited with his doctor, and a beta blocker was prescribed. After a few days of taking the medication, he became nauseated and dehydrated. On Nov. 1, 2012, he returned to the VA Hospital, where he was admitted and treated for dehydration. He was recovering, but on Nov. 17 problems developed with his kidneys, liver, and blood.

The family was informed on the same day that Nicklas had developed an infection, and on Nov. 21 they were told that he had contracted Legionnaires’ disease. Nicklas’ physical and mental condition deteriorated rapidly, until his death two days later. Legionnaires’ disease is a type of pneumonia caused by breathing in water tainted by Legionella bacteria.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) is one of several officials who have expressed outrage over the continuing occurrences of Legionnaires’ disease at the Pittsburgh VA Hospital. On Dec. 6, 2012, in a letter to VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki that was made public by Sen. Casey’s office, Sen. Casey said, “The fact that there has been at least one confirmed death connected to this recent outbreak and the continued investigation of further illness is both tragic and deeply disturbing. These men and women have made extraordinary sacrifices for our nation, yet we have failed in our duty to provide them with the quality of care that they have earned and deserve.”


  • Harry S. Cohen, JD, Partner, Harry S. Cohen & Associates, Pittsburgh. Telephone: (412) 281-3000. E-mail: hcohen@medmal1.com.