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Suits Filed in Deaths of 2 With Legionnaires'

Families accuse Good Samaritan Hospital in L.A. of mishandling an outbreak of the disease, which the facility says did not kill the men.

May 10, 2003|Charles Ornstein | Times Staff Writer

The relatives of two patients who contracted Legionnaires' disease and died last year at Good Samaritan Hospital have sued the facility and its physicians, claiming they mishandled the outbreak and then tried to cover it up.

The families of Kwok Hin Cheng, 65, and Charles Griego, 67, have filed separate lawsuits in Los Angeles County Superior Court, each seeking more than $20 million in damages. Both men underwent bypass surgery at the hospital, contracted the illness and died within two weeks.

Griego's family is also suing Los Angeles County, accusing health officials of acting too slowly to contain the outbreak and not alerting the public. The Griego suit was filed Thursday; the Cheng suit on April 28.

"It's clear in this case that the administration of Good Samaritan Hospital attempted to conceal the outbreak, hiding it from the public at large as well as the patients at the facility," said William Berman, a San Diego lawyer representing the Cheng family. "They greatly compromised the health of patients who were susceptible to contracting the bacteria."

Good Samaritan's lawyer, Michael O'Flaherty, said in a written statement that the hospital and its doctors "understand and sympathize with the sense of loss felt by the families involved in these cases."

"However, the physicians and hospital are passionate that they did everything right throughout," O'Flaherty said. "Both patients entered the hospital with serious medical problems which ultimately were responsible for their deaths. Legionnaires' pneumonia was not the cause of either patient's death."

Death certificates prepared by Good Samaritan physicians in the two cases do not list Legionnaires' disease as the cause of death or as a significant contributing condition, although one certificate mentions pneumonia, which can be caused by the Legionella pneumophila bacterium.

But the families contend that the two men would not have died had it not been for Legionnaires' disease.

Seven other patients became ill with the disease at Good Samaritan from January through June 2002, but all recovered after being given antibiotics.

A person contracts the infection by breathing mist that comes from a water source contaminated with the bacteria. Not all people exposed become infected.

Los Angeles County health officials acknowledged last year that they should have been more forthcoming with the public about the Legionnaires' outbreak at Good Samaritan. The county knew about the problem as early as March 2002, but did not disclose it publicly until late June after an inquiry by a Times reporter.

Department of Health Services spokesman John Wallace said this week that he could not comment on the Griego family's suit because the county had not yet received it.

Nationally, Legionnaires' disease affects 8,000 to 18,000 people annually. Most cases are acquired in the home or community, not in health-care facilities. The disease is fatal in 5% to 30% of cases, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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