ATLANTA — A lawsuit filed Monday alleges "negligence in the operation and maintenance of the water systems" caused a Legionnaires' disease outbreak at a downtown Atlanta hotel that killed one person and potentially sickened dozens.
State and county health officials are investigating the outbreak among people who stayed at or visited the Sheraton Atlanta Hotel between June 22 and July 15. There have been 12 lab-confirmed cases of Legionnaires' disease, including one person who died, and 63 probable cases, Georgia Department of Public Health spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said in an email Monday.
Professional photographer Germany Greer, 67, who fell ill in July after photographing a conference at the hotel from June 27 to July 1, filed the lawsuit in Gwinnett County State Court.
Ken Peduzzi, general manager of the Sheraton Atlanta, said in an emailed statement Monday that the hotel "does not comment on legal matters."
Legionnaires' disease is a serious kind of pneumonia, or lung infection, caused by Legionella bacteria. Symptoms include fever, chills, cough, and shortness of breath.
Legionella bacteria occur naturally in fresh water, like lakes and streams, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It becomes a problem when it grows and spreads in man-made building water systems, including shower heads and faucets, hot water tanks, fountains or plumbing systems in large buildings, the CDC website says.
The lawsuit names Peduzzi, as well as companies identified as owning, managing, and maintaining the hotel. The lawsuit says they were negligent in failing to adequately care for and test the hotel's water system.
"You do not get an outbreak of Legionella unless someone did something that was grossly negligent," Matt Wetherington, one of Greer's lawyers, said in a phone interview.
L. Chris Stewart, another lawyer representing Greer, said they already have 40 clients who became sick after visiting or staying at the Sheraton Atlanta. They include people who attended conferences for professional women, baseball, and parents of adopted children.
"The number grows every day," he said.
The hotel closed voluntarily July 15 and health officials took samples for testing. The original plan was to reopen Sunday, but Peduzzi said in an emailed statement Friday that they were awaiting additional testing results and that the hotel would remain closed at least through Wednesday.
Peduzzi said a "thorough cleaning" of the hotel's entire water system had been done "as a precautionary measure."
In his statement Friday, Peduzzi offered "deepest sympathies to all those affected by the Legionella outbreak."
Stewart and Wetherington said they hope the apology is a sign the hotel plans to accept responsibility. If not, Wetherington said, they could face many more individual lawsuits or a class action suit.
"The ball is their court in terms of how they want to do this," he said. "They can come forward and admit they did something wrong and try to make it right or they can dig their heels in and we'll be litigating this for a very long time."
Greer, who lives just outside Atlanta, first began to feel off a few days after visiting the Sheraton, he said. Food and water tasted weird to him and then he lost his appetite. As his symptoms progressed, he felt alternately hot and cold and suffered bouts of confusion and fatigue.
He went his son's house in mid-July and was sweating profusely and unable to get out of the car when he arrived, he said. His son took him to see a doctor, who suspected Legionnaires' disease and sent him to the hospital for additional tests.
He spent several days in the hospital, his fever spiking to 104 degrees at one point, and tested positive for Legionella, he said.
Even now, weeks after he was discharged from the hospital, he still has anxiety and feels fatigued, he said. Doctors have told him that could last six to eight weeks, which he said is tough since he's generally pretty active.
The lawsuit asks for a jury trial and seeks compensation for pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost wages, lost earning capacity, and loss of enjoyment of life.