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Volunteer Can't Sue Government for Outbreak in VA Hospital

A former volunteer at the Pittsburgh Veteran’s Affairs (VA) hospital tried to sue the government because he contracted Legionnaire’s disease, a severe form of pneumonia, during an unreported outbreak.

According to the federal government, however, he can’t sue. As  a volunteer, he is technically considered an “employee,” despite the fact that he may not be able to file a claim through the federal worker’s compensation system.  Thus, as an “employee,” the disease is considered a work-related injury, preventing him from suing.

Edward Stockley and his wife Paula Stockley tried to sue the federal government in March. The government stated their claims on Monday.

Stockley, a Vietnam veteran, volunteered at the Veterans  Affairs’ University Drive hospital in the beginning of November 2011. Upon his arrival, the hospital was in the midst of an outbreak , and had been since that summer. But Stockley and most employees were completely unaware.

The outbreak has sickened at least 22 people and killed six patients. The family of John Ciarolla, 83, filed a wrongful death suit after he tragically passed away from contracting Legionnaire’s in the same Pittsburgh hospital. Stockley showed up in the emergency room on 29 November 2011 and tested positive for Legionella. He started working at the hospital just weeks earlier. The Vietnam vet experienced disturbing symptoms, including chills, nausea, vomiting and chest pain.

Two internal VA reviews, completed December 2012, blame its employees’ “decisions, errors and lack of knowledge,” and not the water disinfection system as it had initially claimed, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In light of these statements, one wonders why the VA would not adequately train their own employees to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, no less in a hospital setting. It is also interesting to note that Pittsburgh VA officials knew about the outbreak since the summer of the previous year. Why did they not find it necessary to inform their employees on the outbreak, which would have certainly equipped them with greater knowledge for proper decision-making later on?

The clumsy attempt to pass the buck reflects poorly on the VA administration. Furthermore, barricading the Stockleys and another volunteer, Kenneth Jordan,  from  suing the federal government undermines their right to seek retribution and highlights the lack of trust between the administration and its workers. 

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