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Plant City Courier

Legionnaires' disease outbreak leads to lawsuit

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 09:48 PM

The widow of a man who died in October from Legionnaires' disease he contracted while living in a Plant City mobile home park has filed a lawsuit against the park, its management company, general manager and residents association.

Gene Swanson, a 76-year-old retired tool-and-die maker from Michigan, died several days after being diagnosed with the disease. Two other residents contracted the disease and survived.

In November, an independent environmental testing company, working with mobile home park management, found traces of Legionella, the bacteria that causes the disease, in a decorative fountain near the main clubhouse, according to the Hillsborough County Health Department.

In the lawsuit, Swanson's widow, Betty Swanson, says the defendants should have known about possible contamination, failed to prevent it, failed to warn residents and destroyed evidence once investigators arrived.

In a 42-page, 29-count suit, filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court on July 10, she says MHC The Meadows at Countrywood LLC, which owns the 799-unit park, Equity Lifestyle Properties, which manages it, then-general manager Rick Feathers and the Country Meadows Residents Association were negligent in operating the park.

Betty Swanson is seeking unspecified punitive damages against the defendants, claiming they knew about the presence of Legionella in the park's water systems and "deliberately delayed" correcting the problem and notifying residents "because of the notoriety and bad publicity" that would result.

Officials from MHC, Equity Lifestyle Properties and the residents association did not immediately return calls for comment. Feathers left his job with the park about six months ago, according to a woman who answered the phone there. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.

After Swanson and two other park residents were diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease, Hillsborough County officials, seeking the cause of the outbreak, dispatched teams from the Environmental Protection Commission and the Health Department to the park.

Initially, there was some concern about the pool area at the park because an inspection after the disease was discovered showed chlorine levels were below standards, according to the health department. The chlorine level subsequently was increased, making it useless for investigators to sample the water.

Instead, investigators took samples from the decorative fountain, showerheads in the main clubhouse and cabana, the condensate sump tank in the main club house air conditioning system, the entry to the reclaimed water distribution system and untreated well water.

According to the health department report on the incident, no traces of the bacteria causing Legionnaires' was found, but, unexpectedly, chlorine was.

A separate test, by an independent company working with the mobile home park, did find the bacteria in rainwater collected from the decorative fountain, one of 12 spots it checked, according to the report. As a result, the health department concluded that "the likely source of the three cases of Legionnaires' disease was the decorative fountain outside of the main clubhouse."

The lawsuit says that once inspectors arrived at the park on Oct. 14, and the defendants received a notice of potential legal action, they deliberately destroyed evidence by "performing super chlorination on the decorative fountain and other water sources" and added "chlorine to the decorative fountain and other water sources in order to mask the presence" of the bacteria causing the disease and "hinder the investigation of the health department and impeding the determination of the source of the outbreak."


haltman@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7629

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