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As a
bacterial contamination lawyer, I have seen far, far too many situations where people became desperately
ill from bacteria that were allowed to breed in unclean and unsanitary
conditions. Bacterial contamination cases take as many forms as there
are bacteria, but they share a common theme – very simple steps,
such as cleaning properly or cooking thoroughly, could have prevented
the contamination. As a lawyer I have represented clients who contracted
bacterial illnesses from
Legionnaire’s Disease to
listeriosis.

Take the case of some clients of mine, an extended family who had gathered
at a hotel in Georgia. One of the family members was getting married that
evening. To while away the time until the wedding got underway, some of
the family members took their kids down to the hotel’s pool and
spa area. The kids, ages 2 and 5, went swimming. The adults watched the
kids and took turns holding the 5-week old newborn; they never even got
in the water.

Unbeknownst to the family, my clients, legionella bacteria were breeding
in the whirlpool, and becoming airborne through the bubbling water.

After the wedding, the group dispersed to two different states. Within
days, the entire group was sick. The grandmother went into a coma, and
was diagnosed with Legionnaire’s Disease. For a month she battled
for her life. After she was released from the hospital, she spent another
two months recovering from the illness.

The rest of the group fell ill, too, even the little five-week-old who
had been in his mother’s arms while she sat in the pool area. They
had a less serious form of Legionnaire’s disease, known as Pontiac Fever.

Most bacterial contaminations go undiscovered. The people exposed to the
bacteria scatter, and by the time they realize they are ill, no one is
able to trace the illnesses back to the exposure that caused them. This
situation was different for three reasons: (1) the family was bright and
tenacious, and they put all the facts together; (2) they all knew each
other; and (3) the different families had been together for only a short
time, so they were able to pinpoint where they had contracted the illness.

The family notified CDC. As the family struggled with the physical effects
of the legionella, CDC was hot on the trail of its source. The family
had not traveled together, and “their only common exposures were
attendance at the wedding and staying in Hotel A on April 23-25.” Benin,
An Outbreak of Travel-Associated Legionnaires’ Disease and Pontiac
Fever: The Case for Travel-Associated Legionellosis Surveillance in the
United States
, at 5. The CDC went to the hotel’s pool and whirlpool on May 11
and took samples. Using molecular testing, the CDC isolated a rare strain
of legionella (“legionella pneumophila serogroup 6”) from
the whirlpool and the blood of the family members.

The CDC alerted the Cobb County Department of Health, which came to inspect
the hotel’s pool and whirlpool. Cobb County found a lengthy list
of health and safety violations. The whirlpool pump was “not working,”
and both main drain gates were broken. The level of bromine was below
optimal levels. Cobb County ordered the hotel to keep the spa closed,
and added that the hotel “need[ed] to maintain better daily records.”

CDC began contacting guests of the hotel by telephone. Of the 414 guests
who had stayed at the hotel between April 1 and May 11, 1999, the CDC
confirmed that 24 had contracted Legionnaires’ Disease or Pontiac
Fever. Of the 150 guests who had stayed at the hotel on the same weekend
the family did, 12 had contracted Legionnaires’ Disease or Pontiac Fever.

After its investigation, the CDC investigators concluded that: “the
source of transmission was a poorly maintained whirlpool spa.” Id.
at 11. Noting that “the maintenance records at the hotel indicated
that the whirlpool spa conditions were frequently below optimal throughout
the time period examined,” CDC explained that “[w]hirlpool
spa related disease is highly preventable. . . . Hotels and cruise ships
must take responsibility for properly monitoring their facilities and
for maintaining appropriate water conditions.” Id. at 12-13.

The hotel had been completely cavalier about its responsibility to keep
the pool clean and sanitary. I helped the family sue the hotel, and we
were able to reach a very satisfactory settlement for them.