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Plant City widow files suit in Legionnaires' disease death

Last October, just weeks after moving to Plant City, Gene Swanson became ill.

The recent retiree had a fever, harsh cough and fatigue. Doctors admitted him to South Florida Baptist Hospital.

He died three days later on Oct. 15.

The cause: complications stemming from Legionnaires' disease.

Now, a year after Swanson's death, his widow continues to seek justice.

According to a lawsuit filed by Betty Swanson this summer in Hillsborough County Civil Court, a fountain at the mobile home park may be to blame for her husband's death.

And findings from the Hillsborough County Health Department back that theory up.

Legionnaires' disease is a type of pneumonia caused by a naturally occurring bacteria that grows best in warm water, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It is most commonly found in hot tubs, cooling towers or parts of air-conditioning systems in large buildings. People can become infected by breathing contaminated mist or vapor, but it does not spread from person to person.

Three people at the 55-and-older mobile home park became sick with the disease in October 2011, according to the health department. Gene Swanson was the only one who died.

Just days after the outbreak, a nine-person team of public health specialists combed the 799-unit park, checking fountains, ponds, pools and spas as possible sources of the disease.

With the aid of an independent environmental testing company, the health department found that water in the decorative fountain outside the main clubhouse was the only sample that tested positive for the strain of Legionella that caused disease, according to a report.

"The likely source of the three cases of Legionnaires' disease was the decorative fountain outside of the main clubhouse," the report said.

The health department determined that the fountain had been sitting idle for about a month before being restarted in October and that algae and water temperatures greater than 70 degrees may have contributed to the growth of Legionella.

No new cases have been found since the outbreak, the report said. It is not clear if the fountain is still in operation.

The lawsuit names the Meadows at Countrywood, property manager Equity Lifestyle Properties, the Country Meadows Residents Association and then-general manager Rick Feather as defendants.

The lawsuit contends that the gated golf course community failed to properly maintain and inspect the fountain and neglected to inform residents of possible health risks related to the fountain.

The Meadows at Countrywood "had a duty to warn residents such as Gene Swanson of the dangerous, hazardous and/or unsafe condition created by its failure to adequately maintain the fountain and other water supplies in safe condition," the lawsuit states.

Betty Swanson is suing for health-related costs associated with her husband's death.

Walter Jaccard, vice president of legal matters at Equity Lifestyle Properties, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The bacteria that cause Legionnaires' disease have been found in decorative fountains before, according to the health department report. In 2010, researchers linked an outbreak in a Wisconsin hospital to a decorative fountain in the lobby, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Plant City widow files suit in Legionnaires' disease death 10/18/12 [Last modified: Thursday, October 18, 2012 4:30am]
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