|By Patrick McCreless, The Anniston Star,
Ala.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Nov. 20, 2010--A Calhoun County jury rendered a $4.5 million verdict Thursday evening against the owners of an Oxford hotel where two people contracted Legionnaires' disease in 2008.
It took the jury less than an hour to reach the verdict in a civil lawsuit against Devi LLC, an Oxford-based company that owns the Oxford Fairfield Inn and Suites and Courtyard by Marriot. The Fairfield Inn, which was previously named Wingate Inn in 2008, was where the incident occurred.
The lawsuit was filed by Rodney Handley and Emanuel Howard, who alleged they contracted Legionnaires' disease after using a Wingate hot tub in May 2008. Both men worked for Jefferson County and were in the area to assist in cleanup efforts after a tornado hit Heflin. The hot tub has since been removed from the building.
Handley died of a heart attack in January of this year at age 44, but his brother, Brent Handley, continued on with the lawsuit, said plaintiffs' attorney Todd Wheeles.
"We had testimony in the case that Legionnaires' disease can cause other systems to shut down," Wheeles said.
Wheeles noted, however, that he could not prove for certain that the heart attack was related to the disease, but added Handley was suffering with the effects of his illness before his death.
During a phone interview Friday, Brent Handley said he was happy with the outcome of the case.
"I wish my brother had been here to see the outcome of this case," he said. "He went through terrible pain and suffering that could have been avoided. Maybe this verdict will ensure other hotels will keep their facilities clean."
Wheeles said Howard still works for the Jefferson County road department, but continues to suffer from the effects of the disease.
"There was permanent damage to his respiratory system ... he can't do some physical activities," Wheeles said. "He stays very short of breath. He also has neuropathy (nerve damage) in his legs."
Wheeles said the jury handed out a verdict quickly because they were angry about the hotel management's conduct in the case.
"I think the clients were grateful the jury listened to the evidence and did what they felt was right and just in the matter," he said.
Wheeles said evidence during the trial revealed the Alabama Department of Public Health determined Handley and Howard came into contact with Legionella bacteria because it was contained in the mist produced by the hotel's hot tub. After the men became gravely ill from the disease, department investigators went to the hotel to examine the hot tub.
"They told the hotel to close the hot tub and lock it up," Wheeles said. "However, the next morning, the staff goes in and cleans and disinfects the area ... so when the ADPH gets back to get samples, the evidence was destroyed."
Wheeles added that evidence showed hotel management provided incorrect maintenance records about the hot tub to the ADPH.
"The hotel tried to cover up what was done," he said.
Devi attorney Thomas Little declined to comment about the case or whether his client would appeal the ruling.
"The matter is still in litigation, and I don't have a comment at this time," he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 8,000 and 18,000 people in the United States are hospitalized with Legionnaires' disease each year. The symptoms are like other forms of pneumonia, and the disease can cause death in 5 percent to 30 percent of cases.
The Legionella bacteria are found naturally in the environment, usually in water. The bacteria grow best in warm water, like the kind found in hot tubs, cooling towers, hot water tanks, large plumbing systems, or parts of the air-conditioning systems of large buildings.
Star staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561.
To see more of The Anniston Star or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.annistonstar.com/.
Copyright (c) 2010, The Anniston Star, Ala.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For more information about the content services offered by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (MCT), visit www.mctinfoservices.com.