A 62-year-old Edina man hospitalized with Legionnaires’ disease in August has sued Citrus Systems Inc., a juice manufacturing plant identified as the source of the outbreak that sickened 23 people and contributed to one death.
In what appears to be the first suit related to the Hopkins outbreak, Christopher Jones and wife Kathryn are seeking unspecified damages of more than $50,000 for negligence and loss of wages, according to court records.
Jones, a car salesman at a Honda dealership adjacent to the Citrus Systems factory, developed a high fever in late August and was admitted to Fairview Southdale Hospital, where he spent two weeks in the intensive care unit. He tested positive for a strain of legionella bacteria that turned out to be an exact genetic match to samples from one of Citrus Systems’ cooling towers, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Everyone infected, including the 17 hospitalized, lived, worked or shopped in the Hopkins area. Jones remains in a rehab facility and has been off work for at least six weeks, said his attorney, Ryan Osterholm of Pritzker Hageman, a Minneapolis-based firm that specializes in Legionnaires’ and food-borne illness litigation.
“He was on the verge of death,” said Osterholm, who added that the long-term injuries remain unclear. “It’s absolutely changed his life. We need to make sure this never happens again.”
Osterholm represents at least six others who were sickened during the Hopkins outbreak the past few months, and he said that number could increase. Additional lawsuits against Citrus Systems may be coming.
When a cluster of Legionnaires’ cases emerged in early September, state and local health authorities began searching for industrial cooling towers using online, overhead maps of the area.
Towers are often the culprits in such outbreaks, because people are only infected when they inhale aerosolized water particles containing legionella bacteria. Not everyone who breathes the vapor gets sick, but people with compromised immune systems, chronic illnesses or a history of tobacco use are more prone to infection.
Citrus Systems’ towers eluded investigators’ initial sweep but were tested after the health department received a tip. The system was sanitized on Sept. 27, and no new infections have been reported since Sept. 23, meaning officials believe the outbreak is over.
The lawsuit aims to prove that Citrus was negligent in its operation of the plant, failing to “conduct adequate tests” or “verify the effectiveness of its sanitizing system,” according to court documents. Attorneys also allege that Citrus did not have a sufficient water management plan in place to prevent the growth of legionella in its towers.
In a statement, Citrus Systems officials said the company is reviewing the suit.
“We have the utmost respect for the legal process and therefore will not be making public comment on the matter at this time,” said spokesman Terry Richards. “We have been working in full cooperation with the Minnesota Department of Health and have a robust water management plan in place. We look forward to telling our story throughout the legal process in the appropriate venue.”
The company dedicated a section of its website to answering questions about the Legionnaires’ outbreak, ensuring the public that they “are taking numerous proactive steps to maintain the high health standards within our facility.” A message also informs visitors that in over 30 years of operation, they have never issued a recall on their products.
Citrus Systems manufactures juices, smoothies and teas; health department officials confirmed that consumers have no risk of contracting the disease by drinking these beverages.